Posted by: Johnold J. Strey | August 26, 2017

Sermon on Exodus 34:5-7


Sermon based on Exodus 34:5-7


What’s in a name? When you hear the name, “Milwaukee,” what comes to mind? Beer, brats, and bowling? Polka music? Summer festivals along Lake Michigan? Cryptosporidium? Harley Davidson? Bob Uecker?

What’s in a name? When you hear the name, “Midwest Express,” what comes to mind? (There are some investors who have recently indicated that they would like to resurrect this old Milwaukee-based airline). The best care in the air? Wide seats and spacious legroom? Meals served on china? Champagne? Warm chocolate chip cookies?

What’s in a name? When you hear the acronym, “WELS,” what comes to mind? Skeptics on the outside might say, “A strict church body.” New appreciative members of our churches often say, “A church body that is truly committee to Scripture.” Crown of Life Lutheran Church? Kettle Moraine Lutheran High School? Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary? A solid stand on the Scriptures? Midwest-living, coffee-drinking, casserole-consuming, jello-loving Lutherans?

What’s in a name? Names are so much more than an identifying label, like the name tags and stickers we put on our shirts at a large meeting or convention. Names tell us so much more than the title that people use to call us. Those names often carry emotions and memories and images and so much more.

What’s in a name? In the Gospel for today (Matthew 16:13-20), Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” The “Son of Man” was Jesus’ common expression to refer to himself. The disciples noted that people had all sorts of ideas who Jesus was, but their popular ideas were all a little short of reality. In the end, Peter gave the correct answer: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” There were plenty of people who knew about Jesus, but they didn’t know who Jesus, the Son of Man, really was. They didn’t understand what was really behind his name.

Yahweh LORDIn the First Reading for today, God defines what his name means. The upper-case “Lord” that we often see as we read the Old Testament in our Bible translations was not a generic word for God. It was the proper name of God, assumed to have been pronounced Yahweh. And this proper name for God, like so many other names and titles, reveals many of God’s defining characteristics to us. We’re going to take a closer look at the first three verses of today’s First Reading, where God defines his own name. God’s self-description will help us understand who he really is, so that we don’t find ourselves in the same boat as the crowds of Jesus’ day who knew about him but really didn’t know who he was. So let’s ask, “What’s in a name—what’s in God’s name?” and answer it from God’s own words in Exodus 34. 


Old Testament Illustrations 067This was Moses’ second trip up Mt. Sinai for the Ten Commandments. The first time he went up, the people of Israel became impatient. It seemed like Moses was moving slower than Friday afternoon rush hour in Chicago. Where did God and his prophet disappear to? The people decided that if God and Moses weren’t around anymore, it was time to make their own gods. They melted their gold jewelry and formed a golden calf—a symbol of power and fertility copied from the pagan religions of their time. When Moses finally came down the mountain, there he saw the idolatry and adultery that the nation was foolishly engaging in, and in sheer anger and disgust he threw down the two tablets of stone with the Ten Commandments on them and broke them. Of course, it was the people and their sin that had really broken them!

God wasn’t pleased at all with his people. He threatened to abandon them altogether. But Moses interceded for Israel and begged for God to have mercy on them. And God did—keeping his promise to be faithful to them despite their lack of faithfulness toward him.

In the course of that conversation, a weary Moses asked for God to reveal his full glory before his very eyes. God said that no human being can see his full, divine glory and live, but God said he would let Moses see a portion of his glory—an eclipsed version, so to speak. This is a mystical but very interesting account from Moses’ life. And as God revealed his glory before Moses on the mountain, part of that “reveal” was that God proclaimed and defined what his name, the Lord, Yahweh, means. “Then the Lord came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the Lord. And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.”

What’s in a name? God tells us what his name, the Lord, Yahweh, means:

  • The compassionate…God: God looks with favor on his people, his chosen children, and with pity for us in our need, he provides whatever it is that we need.
  • The…gracious God: God has a uniquely heartfelt response to his people in need, graciously hearing our cries for help and deliverance from our sins and all they have done to break our relationship with God. He showers his children with undeserved love to help us in our spiritual need.
  • Slow to anger: God is patient with us! And if he is patient with us, that implies that we have tested his patience! But he is intentionally slow to become angry with us.
  • Abounding in love and faithfulness: God isn’t just kind and reliable. He is rich and generous with his faithful kindness. When God says he is displays “love and faithfulness,” he is using a figure of speech that connects two words together to express a single concept. Just as we sometimes say in English, “nice and warm” to mean nicely warm, so God says he abounds in “love and faithfulness” to express the idea that he is faithfully and reliably loving and kind to his creation and his dearly loved children.
  • Maintaining love to thousands: The kindness he just described for us is something that he preserves for and extends to thousands of people by lifting away our burdens, as he goes on to say:
  • Forgiving wickedness, rebellion, and sin: God’s ultimate plan for his people was to carry away the burden of their guilt, the crooked behavior that makes us guilty before him and deserving of his punishment. God’s ultimate plan for his people was to carry away the burden of their transgression, the rebellious actions that had broken mankind’s relationship with him. God’s ultimate plan for his people was to carry away the burden of their sin, the many and frequent times we have missed the mark of perfect obedience to God’s commandments. God is in the forgiveness and burden-removal business!

But these great characteristics of God’s love do not undo his justice against sin. For the Lord goes on to say that his name also means this: “Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.” God is incredibly gracious and loving and patient and forgiving, but he is not a “Get out of Hell Free” card. Alongside his forgiving nature, he is just as just. He certainly does not let sin go unpunished. He “visits” the guilty with punishment like an IRS agent who visits your front door with a large tax bill that has gone unpaid. God will punish the crooked deeds committed by one generation, which is often repeated the next, and the next, and the next generation that follows.


Someone once said, “First God made us in his image, and ever since then, we have been returning the compliment.” When people talk about God today, they’re often talking about the god of their imagination, not God as he is and as he has revealed himself to us. People like to define God on their terms, not on his terms. Look at the events that led up to our reading today. Not only did Moses’ brother, Aaron, fashion a golden calf “god” to please the impatient people of Israel, but then he announced to them, “Tomorrow there will be a festival to the Lord”—he used God’s proper name to talk about a fake god that he made out of melted gold. And the nation at large gave this chunk of medal credit for everything the Lord had done for them: “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.”

different religionsBut is that kind of thinking limited to the ancient world? Doesn’t our modern world do the same thing? “It doesn’t matter what name you call God, because every name for God and every religion takes you to the same God.” We would never say that every city name refers to the same place, or that every freeway, whether I-94 or 43 or 41 or 90, will all take you to the same destination. But that’s essentially what our culture says about God: Make your god however you want him or her or it to be, because it will all lead to the same ending. It’s the same sin and foolishness as seen among the ancient Israelites.

But is that kind of thinking limited to the world around us? Can’t we also become comfortable redefining God on our own terms? We like to acknowledge that he has compassion, but we’re not so keen to admit that we’re in pitiful spiritual shape without his compassion. We like to acknowledge God’s faithful love, but we’re not so eager to admit how faithless and loveless we have been. We have no problem stating that God is gracious, but we find it much more difficult to acknowledge that if God is gracious to us, that means that we don’t deserve once ounce of the goodness and forgiveness that he shares with us.

True story: Many decades ago, a pastor went to visit a man in his congregation who had been diagnosed with a terminal illness that would soon take his life. In the course of their conversation, the pastor was shocked to find out that the man didn’t think he was a sinner. “Why did you come to church all these years if you didn’t think you needed Jesus?” The man’s answer: “I came to support the church’s work to bring Jesus’ forgiveness to other people.” The man was fine with God being gracious to others, but he thought he didn’t need that grace for himself. The short version of the story’s ending is that the pastor gave a stern warning to his parishioner, and later the man repented from his sinful pride and acknowledged his need for God’s grace.

Isn’t it all too easy to be that man, dying in our sin yet claiming that we don’t need God to be who he is for us? We can make our own golden calves and call them “god”—the big man upstairs who looks at my sin with the same lack of seriousness and concern that I have, the best buddy in the sky who’s fine if I just check in with him when it’s convenient for me. Our redefined God might be pleased with us, but the true, authentic, real Lord who sees and knows all would have every right to abandon us to the flames of hell’s desert wasteland.

But it is just when we have bought into our redefinition of God that we need to go back to his definition of his own name! “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.”

  • God is not ignorant about our sin. He is gracious, forgiving us for the sake of his Son Jesus even though we do not deserve his love.
  • God is not heartless about our condition. He is compassionate, giving us the rescue from sin and hell that we need because his Son Jesus paid for our sin and suffered our hell in our place on the cross.
  • God is not quick to judge us. He is slow to anger, lovingly and patiently giving us a lifetime of grace to turn to him and cling to his Son’s cross for forgiveness for our sins and healing for our souls.
  • God is not unfair or unpredictable. He is completely reliable to his Word, saying that sin must be punished, but in tremendous grace, offering his Son Jesus to die for us on the cross so that our penalty was justly paid and our ticket to heaven was properly secured.

On our own, we could never imagine God in this way. We could never create or concoct the plan that God did, a plan that honored his justice and his grace all at the same time. But we can see God clearly in Jesus.

In Jesus, we see all of God’s unchanging and beautiful characteristics carried out for us. No man-made God, no hand-crafted golden calf can erase our sin, eliminate our guilt, enable us to have true spiritual freedom, and ensure our eternity in heaven. But Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross and victory over the grave shows you just how gracious and loving and faithful the Lord is. And all these beautiful truths are attached to that name, the Lord. God’s name means so much more than we could imagine, it delivers so much more than we deserve, and it gives us more reasons than we can ever count to praise him.

What’s in a name? In the name of the Lord God and his Son, Jesus Christ, you find a name that means everything! Amen.



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