March 8, 2020
Second Sunday in Lent
“A Rose by Any Other Name: Abba and El Elyon”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
So there’s this uncle of female and male twins, and his sister, the mother of the twins, is stuck trying to think of a name for the children. The uncle says “I’ve got an idea!”, and the mother gets excited, thinking this could be it. She says "What should their names be?" The uncle replies “Well for your daughter, Denise” “That’s a nice name” comments the mother, “but what about my son?” The uncle simply replies “Denephew”.
It is always interesting how God seems to work. I don’t know about anyone else, but if I hear any more about a certain virus, political point or changing climate, despite all their importance, my head just may explode. As I thought more about it, it became apparent that I could surely use some mental and even spiritual distraction. And then it was like a bolt of lightening coming straight from the hand of God - “Tag, you’re it!”
So I deem it very clever on God’s part to place it on my heart to do a Lenten series on names for God. I doubt that there is much controversy over one of last week’s names, Elohim, which is a name that refers to God’s incredible power and might, with some implications of physical formation or creation of things, strong and sure things, even made out of nothing, as in the God of the creation of the world, according to Genesis 1.
Likewise, last week’s other name, Yahweh, not likely a popular theme for the day in Christianity, is yet the most holy name for God, from ancient Hebrew - like our Old English. Because Yahweh is such a holy name, it is seldom spoken, and it is written without vowels. I didn’t spend a huge amount of time looking for it, but I sort of remember that the reason it is spelled without vowels is linked to the holiness idea of the name. To attempt to perfectly spell God’s name would put one on par with the holy God, and that would be a sin - if I remember correctly.
Anyway, this morning we look at two more names for God: Abba and El Elyon. Last week I mentioned that Abba was the name for God like the name daddy - as well as the name for the Swedish pop group. When it’s used, there is an element of deep trust, intimacy and protection, very much like the name some children use for their parent.
I’m sure you’ve all noticed that there is no particular scripture passage listed this morning. When it became apparent that so many of the references were single sentences, it didn’t make sense to use a longer passage to make the point. To that end, one might wonder just when the Bible would use Abba, the incredibly familiar name of the same God who is so holy that people think twice before speaking God’s proper name.
Those here last week may tune out momentarily, as I bring up the passage from Mark 14, when Jesus was hanging on the cross. He said, “Abba, Father, everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” Abba is the Aramaic name for “father,” and since most experts believe Jesus’ native language to be Aramaic, it makes the most sense that Jesus would use one of the (probable) earliest words he learned, when he was suffering his greatest pain.
Jesus is the only one to use the name Abba in any of the gospels, but the apostle Paul uses it twice: once in a letter to the Romans and once in a letter to the Galatians. And what use he makes!
Romans 8:15 says, “The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.”
Having a God as father may be a difficult thing for some people, because of past abuses from their own fathers, which is why you will not often hear me refer to God as “he.” (Besides, using God for God helps me to remember that God is so much bigger than a pronoun.)
But if one is adopted by God, it becomes a different ballgame, because people who adopt children generally ‘pick’ them - at whatever age the child may be. Regardless of any of our particular situations, God has chosen you to be God’s child for far longer than you can truly comprehend. If it were more earthly, your picture would be stapled in the top corner of the adoption form, with God’s signature at the bottom.
Aside from the emotional aspect of this name, without complete researching, I’d guess there are no other gods that offer their follower the privilege to call them father - or mother - but that’s a whole bunch of ‘we aren’t going there today.’
Just a few verses after what Paul wrote about the Spirit and adoption, Paul writes about the Spirit and prayer. Romans 8:26 “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.”
We don’t know how long it was between Jesus’ utterance of Abba and the rest of the sentence, but it could have been a long, pregnant pause, allowing for the Spirit to intervene between God and Christ - should Jesus not have known what to pray. Even if Jesus didn’t pause after praying “Abba” on the cross, it’s good to know that the Spirit is there for us, just as it was there for Jesus - regardless of our agonies or circumstances.
This reference Paul uses in his letter to the Galatians is somewhat akin to the way he used it with the Romans, but it goes a step further. He wrote, Galatians 4:4-7 “when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship. Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir.”
The Greek word for adoption to sonship is a legal term referring to the full legal standing of an adopted male heir in Roman culture. Even from ancient Rome, those who were different were taunted. But when a person was - and is - adopted - it’s a done deal. No longer adrift on the sea of maybes and coulda’s, this legal formality ends the possibility of being taken away and given to another. We are God’s, and it’s a done deal, whatever way you want to look at it. Just as Jesus felt free to use Abba in speaking to God, so may we feel free to address God. It may not seem like such a big deal to us in our modern day, but it does remind us of how far we’ve come as people of faith.
Incidentally, this word, Abba, is not only a term used by our Catholic and Episcopalian brothers and sisters in reference to their priests, but is used for bishops and elders within the Coptic, Syriac, and Ethiopian churches.
A dad came in the front door and said, “I was just listening to the radio on my way from work. Apparently an actress just killed herself.” The mom said, “Oh my! Who!?” The dad said, “Uh, I can't remember... I think her name was Reese something?” The mom practically shouted, “WITHERSPOON!!!!!???????” The dad said, “No, it was with a knife…”
While our modern names are almost exclusively for designation, and intended for identification, Biblical names were also descriptive, and often prophetic. A child’s name could be a name and a prayer, psychologically setting up the child to become what the prayers had prayed.
She was born Sarai, a name that meant quarrelsome. But after God made the covenant with her husband, Abraham, and before the birth of her son, God said that Sarai’s name should be Sarah, meaning princess. She’d grown into her quarrelsome name, but when God changed her circumstances, she was also to understand herself differently.
So we can understand El Elyon a little better, as it is the name for God that means “God Most High.” El, as a name that is translated as “God,”can be used in conjunction with other words to designate various aspects of God's character. So El, means God and Elyon means ‘highest’. One could use it in the phrase, Elyon Dinah is the best pastor in the entire world, and you’d get the drift, if only it were true.
In Deuteronomy 26:19 while writing about a hierarchy of people, the author used this name of God that also denotes a hierarchical understanding. “He has declared that he will set you in praise, fame and honor high above all the nations he has made and that you will be a people holy to the LORD your God, as he promised.” Lord your God. El Elyon your God.
When speaking about the greatness of God, the Psalmist used El Elyon in painting a picture of God over creation, Psalm 18:13 “The LORD thundered from heaven; the voice of the Most High resounded.” It’s rather cool, too, that Spanish and some Native American languages use “el” as an emphasis - as in the rock formation at Yosemite National Park’s famous, El Capitan - The Captain, rather than merely “the captain.”
So El Elyon is The Exalted One who is lifted far above all gods and people, a Deity unlike all other deities. El Elyon, I believe, is a distinction that would not relish “lording itself” over other beings, or even dismissive of other gods, but simply states a fact that can lend meaning in prayer and meditation and understanding.
It’s also interesting pairing these two names for God - Abba of the heart - and El Elyon of dominions and areas. And this very same God, of vast names and understandings, so desirous of a relationship with us, sent God’s very own Son to show us a deeper and higher life and way of living. Abba, El Elyon sent Christ, so that God might know the human condition more intimately, so as to fully immerse God’s self into our humanity, thought and ways of living.
Allow me to be the first to vocalize how ineffectual a name for God can be, when it seems that despite all God’s power and ability, God doesn’t heal us of maladies - man-made or otherwise. Except that God does answer our prayers - but not often in ways that we want.
This name designation could be all cerebral and disconnected from the heart. Except that the intent of this exploration is to connect the heart and mind in ever greater ways. One can look at a banner for a minute and know that it’s beautiful. But the longer one sits with that banner, incorporating the knowledge behind the creation of the banner, leads to an even deeper way of appreciating and even sitting with that banner. So is it true with names for God.
Using particular names of God in praying or sitting with God won’t necessarily change how God responds to our prayers or meditation. But those names change the length and breadth and height and depth of our understanding and prayers, our sitting with God, our breathing in and out of God. So we begin.
Abba, El Elyon, Elohim and Yahweh, thank you for the gift of language, that we may appreciate you more fully, your grand plan as well as your innermost subtleties. We confess that sometimes we fail to appreciate your largesse and grand scheme, as well as all the little things that make you so different and so surpassing of other deities. We ask your forgiveness as we live out determinations to keep your names in mind and heart and soul, that we live larger, breath deeper and more fully all that which is you. In the coming week and days, remind us as often as possible of your names and the richness of our lives in them. For all your blessings, large, small and all between, all your people say, Amen.