Sunday, August 25, 2013

Where Faith Goes: Trail Markers

Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
August 25, 2013
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

We've been talking about faith for the last couple of weeks as we looked at what the book of Hebrews has to say to us about it. We started with a definition of faith: the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

Then we moved closer to see what faith looks like, and it turns out it looks like a lot of ordinary, flawed people listening for God and moving along the road, keeping their eyes fixed on Jesus.

Now, we’re in the third and final week of our series, and we’re getting some direction
on how to DO faith – where faith goes, and how.

Let’s look for direction now from Hebrews 13, verses 1-8 and 15-16.
Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers. Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, "I will never leave you or forsake you." So we can say with confidence, "The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?" Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.

Have you ever gotten lost in the woods?
I don’t mean lagging behind on a marked trail, but really, truly lost? with no idea how to get home? Maybe it wasn’t the woods. Maybe it was the desert, or prairie, or a cornfield in August. Wherever it was, obviously, since you are here, you found your way home.

It is kind of surprising to think about the number of people who go out for a hike, usually in the mountains or forest, and get lost and never come home, are never found. In the United States, between one and two THOUSAND hikers go missing every year. Over a thousand of them get lost JUST in our National Parks. Most of them are found. But some are not.

Serious hikers exhort people to pay attention to some basic guidelines: carry a pack with some survival basics; let someone know where you are going and when you expect to be back; and don’t go alone.

Most hikers who get lost are solo, young men, who set out alone. When they get lost, instead of turning back, they forge on, without knowing where they are going.[1] That’s when they get into trouble. This scripture in Hebrews, like those exhortations from hiking experts, is filled with instructions about our own journey, as we run that race along a very long track, through wilderness and desert, in the woods and the prairies of our lives.

Scholars call this “hortatory” scripture, because it exhorts us – instructs and encourages us – no -- urges us, to go in a certain direction, to act in a certain way. I think of this text as being like a set of trail markers. You’ve seen trail markers before – maybe you learned about them in Scouting, or with a hiker, or in a book. They date back to ancient times.

In Scripture, trail markers were generally rock cairns, like the one pictured on the front of your bulletin. They were stones, piled atop one another, and they served two purposes:
Cairns were a mark of God’s covenant faithfulness, and cairns marked the path to get back home. When the people of Israel were freed from slavery in Egypt, they headed out into the wilderness. God guided them for many years in that journey, until they finally crossed the Jordan into the promised land, carrying the ark of the covenant. At that spot, they piled up stones, building a cairn in observance of God’s deliverance, marking their path to freedom, to their new home. And when the people went into exile, driven away from their homes, they built cairns to mark the way back, trusting that one day they would return to their homeland.

The practice of marking a trail hasn’t changed much, even though the medium has changed. In what is now West Texas, the early Spanish explorers marked the plains with wooden stakes, direction markers, so they could find their way back and forth. The high plains were called the “llano estacado,” the staked plains. Some trails in Europe are marked with painted symbols, stenciled onto trees or rocks, giving guidance to hikers.

No matter what form trail markings take, their ultimate goal is to communicate two basic pieces of information:  where a hiker is currently, and where he or she needs to go next. That’s pretty much what these trail markers do. They remind us of God’s covenant faithfulness. They show us where we are and where we need to go next. There are times when Christian faith calls us to strike out and blaze new trails; there are times when it calls us to stay on the well-worn path.[2] These are trail markers for our faith. Given that, let’s take a quick look at these markers in Hebrews 13.

Marker 1. The love of fellow believers in community and love to the stranger.
Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. The Beloved Community, the church, is a home for love. Our welcome and hospitality are not limited to ourselves, but are offered to others in Christ’s name.  By our loving welcome, we demonstrate God’s love in Christ.

Marker 2: To show care in times of distress.
Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. Our Christian journey is marked by our care for those who suffer – not just each other, not just people we know, but all who suffer.

Marker 3: Honor the marriages of others, and stay faithful to our own marriage covenants.
Defending marriage isn’t the point here, but holding all marriage in honor. Even if we should suffer the pain of the breakdown of our own marriages, we can still honor the covenant of marriage. If you are not married, uphold the covenants that others have made. And if you are married, keep your promises.

Marker 4: Contentment with what we have.
It has been said that true happiness consists not in having what you want, but in wanting what you have. What we have, beyond any material possessions, is the abiding, constant, grace-filled promise of Christ: “I will never leave you or forsake you.” So we can say with confidence, "The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?"  That is true contentment.

Marker 5: Loyalty and constancy
Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. This is not just blind loyalty to a pastor or a public religious figure. Those who spoke the word of God to you – you know who they are. They may be the voices of scripture, the cloud of witnesses. They may be Sunday School teachers, ministers, children,  a neighbor or a friend. Remember them and stay faithful because of their examples. People change – they fail, they fall away, they come and go, but Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.

Marker 6: Proper worship and proper sacrifice.[3]
Here’s what Hebrews 13 says: Through him, then, -- him referring to Jesus Christ, the one who is constant and faithful, on whom our eyes are fixed, who is the author and perfecter of our faith, through him, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God. That sacrifice is not a burnt offering on an altar. That sacrifice is the fruit of lips that confess his name. That sacrifice is to do good and to share what you have. To do good and to share what you have. Those are sacrifices that are pleasing to God. That’s why here at the front of the church, you don’t see an altar, even though many folks refer to it as such – there is no altar in this church. There is a table, the symbol of our gathering, and a reminder that Christ’s sacrifice was once and for all. So we do not gather in front of an altar, but around a table. Here, gathered around this table, literally and figuratively, as we live in community, as we worship together, we come and bring our gifts to God.

We travel from many places, through weeks that feel like a wilderness, through days that look like deserts, seasons that seem like we are at sea, or lost on a featureless prairie. The trail is well marked, and it brings us here, leads us to this table where we bring our gifts, gifts of praise and lips that confess God’s name, gifts of works that bring glory to God and Christ our risen Savior.

When we set out on the journey of Christian faith, we need to know where we are. We need to know where we are going. We need to know how to get there. We need to know how to get home. This is a trail that is well marked. The trail leads us through every circumstance, through gloomy fog and dark woods, when we may not be able to see the markers and must trust in Christ our guide; through sunlit meadows and vast open plains, when everything looks the same in every direction, and we simply fix our eyes on Jesus; the road may take us up to mountain tops and down into valleys and across rivers, through places both hospitable and treacherous.

But always, always, the path leads us back to Christ,
who calls us and guides us,
who gathers us and cares for us,
who meets us at this table,
who is always with us,
always ready with arms outstretched,
always ready to welcome us and lead us home.


Sunday, August 18, 2013

What Faith Looks Like: Family Photos

Hebrews 11:29-12:2
August 18, 2013
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

11:29 By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned. 30 By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. 31 By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace. 32 And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— 33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, 34 quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. 35 Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. 36 Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented— 38 of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. 39 Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, 40 since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.

12:1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, 2 looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

Remember how it used to be, taking pictures, before digital photography? You had to load film into a camera, carry the camera with you, set up the shots, take the pictures, then wait for them to be developed before you could see them – so you had to pay for processing your pictures – whether they were any good or not. Remember getting double prints? And saving negatives? Remember photo albums?

A  favorite pastime when I was a child was to sit with my brothers and sisters on a rainy Saturday afternoon, and to leaf through family photos. We would recall Christmases, vacations, illnesses and birthdays. Mostly we remembered the odd events, like when the raccoon stole our pajamas off the line, or the time we got so sunburned the first day at the beach that we spent the rest of the trip visiting caves, or staying in the shade. Pictures jog our memories, change them even, keep them alive and growing, filling our lives with stories.

One of my fondest memories of my maternal grandmother is the afternoon Bob and I went to visit, and while he did repairs -- she always made a list when she knew he was coming!— Grandma and I looked at her photo album. She talked to me about nearly every picture in her album – pictures I had never seen, of her parents, her grandparents, her brother and sister, and herself. She called to mind for me my heritage and my connection with those pictured.

That’s what is happening in the opening verses of today’s reading. The writer of Hebrews, as we saw last week, is discussing faith. In this section, the writer lists the names of some heroes of the Hebrews. He doesn’t need to go into detail about their stories, any more than I would if I mention Abraham Lincoln, or Babe Ruth, or, to get more local, Hezekiah Brink, or Myrtle Alps. The writer knows his audience, knows they will recognize these stories, and he lifts up these heroes as examples of faith.

In verse 29, he refers to Moses, leading the people through the Red Sea.
In verse 30, he’s talking about Joshua circling the walls of Jericho.
The next verse is Rahab, who modeled hospitality in welcoming Israelite spies.
Gideon – whose trumpet and sword for the Lord made him victorious;
Samson, whose superhuman strength testified to God’s power;
Jephthah, another judge of Israel;
David, the shepherd boy who felled a giant, king and ancestor of Jesus;
Samuel, the prophet whose call from God came when he was only a boy.

These giants of faithfulness conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Look at them, arrayed here, this pantheon of saints! Be like them!

However – and this is a big however! – not exactly.Because there’s more to their stories. These are family photos, but they are awkward – more than a little awkward! That afternoon that I spent with my grandma, looking at family pictures – she told me things about her family that I did not know – things she had never even told my mother. It changed the way I saw those photos. It’s funny, when you take a second look at pictures of heroes.

Moses, led the people out of Egypt, but he was wishy washy and timid. Rahab was a prostitute. Samson couldn’t keep his mouth shut and told his secret to a woman who betrayed him. Jephthah, judge of Israel, made a rash promise to God that result in the death of his own daughter. David, well, you remember, that little issue he had with the neighbor, the one he sent into battle to be killed so he could keep the man’s wife?

Awkward family photos, indeed.
This is our family of faith. This is what faith looks like.
Faith looks like a struggle to believe. Faith looks like suffering. Faith looks like failure and embarrassment. Faith looks like disgrace. At first glance, anyway, faith looks like it is impossible.

Pause for a moment and think about your own photo album, the pictures you carry in your heart, of people and places from your past. Look through the eyes of faith. I think what you will see is perseverance in the face of problems, grace in the time of disgrace… because faith also looks like strength. Faith holds up its head and keeps going. Faith reaches out a hand to another, and together, we get through it. Faith perseveres, even under a heavy load, even under the weight of sin that clings as close as fine dust, the grit from the dirt road that gets into your ears and down into your pores and even in your mouth.

Faith persists.
Faith endures.  
The assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
Faith perseveres.

Faith perseveres because of this other face, this picture in our family photo album that draws our attention every time we open the book, this face of love and tenderness, of compassion, of hope. Faith perseveres because of him, who was faithful to the end, who traded glory for shame, honor for humiliation. Faith perseveres because of the one who ate with sinners and prostitutes, who sought out the fearful and the shamed, the lowly and the least, but still had room for the arrogant and mighty, made room for them at the cross.

He is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who walked the road and walks with us still. He is the center of this family of faith, the picture in our photo album that reminds us that God’s best hope for us
is not shame but celebration,
not grief but gladness,
not hurt but healing.
not poverty but plenty.

Jesus is the picture of love that keeps on loving, grace that keeps on giving.
His grace does not depend on our faith, but our faith depends on his grace.

Pause again for a moment and think about the photo album you carry in your heart, the pictures of those who encouraged you, who upheld you, taught you and corrected you. Take a moment and give thanks for them, and then give thanks for the one whose incredible love was there at the beginning, the one who is the author of all our stories and the one who will be there at the end, perfecting our journey.

Because that is what faith looks like. Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

Thanks be to God for the cloud of witnesses, and for the one who sits at God’s right hand.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Saints and Ain'ts: What is Faith?

What is Faith?
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
August 11, 2013
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
1 Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 2 Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. 3 By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.
8 By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. 9 By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. 10 For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. 11 By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old—and Sarah herself was barren—because he considered him faithful who had promised. 12 Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, "as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore." 13 All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, 14 for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.

Sometimes the news headlines cooperate so beautifully with sermon preparation that it seems like God must be laughing uproariously. On Thursday, while I was writing this sermon, I heard an odd little headline on the radio. Here’s the story from the St. Paul, Minnesota, Tribune:

The St. Paul Saints plan to change their name for a game sponsored by atheist groups. The American Association minor league club will call itself the "Mr. Paul Aints" when they host the Amarillo Sox on Aug. 10. The Minnesota Atheists and American Atheists suggested the promotion to tie in with a regional atheist conference in town that weekend. The game's billing is "a night of unbelievable fun." The letter "s" will be covered up on Saints signs in the ballpark. Player jerseys will be auctioned for charity. Saints executive Derek Sharrer says the club has "no intention of mocking or making fun of anyone's faith." He says several faith-based organizations have sponsored games before and that the Saints felt it would be "hypocritical" to tell the atheists no.[1]

Not the Saints, but the Aints. Because, I guess, they ain’t got no faith. If you had to define faith, what would you say? You might say, like the writer of Hebrews, that faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. When you ask an atheist for a definition of faith, you are likely to get the same answer, though it might be in a different tone. Or you could get an answer more like this: “Gnostic means knowing, agnostic means not knowing, faith means ignorance.”[2]

It is very easy to find this sort of answer on the Internet, where some people surf websites in order to ridicule what others write. These folks, and there are many varieties of them, are called trolls. The general feeling is that trolls may disguise themselves as earnest conversation partners, but that ultimately their goal is to bait others into anger or insults, thereby justifying their own uncivil remarks and insults. My experience with trolls is mostly limited to the anti-religious types, those who seem to believe it is their duty to attack every remark that sounds even vaguely Christian, usually with some very nasty assumptions often based on their own bad experiences with religion or Christians. Sometimes those comments are justified. Sometimes, those comments are downright cruel.

When someone posts on a Christian Facebook page a request for prayer, and then posts a follow-up about the answer to that prayer, there always seems to be an atheist troll who will comment something like: “You are stupid and ignorant and you might as well believe in unicorns.” Or – “faith is believing in baby-murdering book myth gods.” And those are the generous comments. At bottom, the atheist troll isn’t interested in dialogue, but ridicule. Their goal is not to understand, but to verbally demolish. This is not true of every atheist – just the trolls.

Sadly, too many Christians rise to the bait, and they do it poorly, without knowledge or awareness of the long historic trajectory of philosophical and theological arguments. In other words, when it comes to faith, many Christians don’t seem to know what they are talking about. So we pass on stories of public school classrooms, where some clever child trounces a Godless teacher:

The teacher says the Bible can’t be true, because it is physically impossible for a whale to swallow a human. The little girl says that Jonah was swallowed by a whale. The irritated teacher repeats that this is impossible. The little girl answers, “When I get to heaven I will ask Jonah.”  The teacher sneers, “What if Jonah went to hell?”
The little girl answers, “Then you can ask him.”
We find that funny – the unbeliever finds it stupid.

Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
But there must be more to it than that.

Let’s talk first about doubt, which many people believe to be the opposite of faith. The equation is that faith equals belief, and doubt equals unbelief, or a lack of faith. In fact, the opposite of faith is certainty – the absolute conviction that you are absolutely right, in possession of the absolute Truth with a capital T, based on a rational argument that has absolute intellectual integrity.

Some Christians think that certainty is necessary, and get tangled up in apologetics, defending their certainty to someone who is equally certain of the opposing point of view.
It is almost guaranteed that such conversation will devolve into mud-slinging, and trading insults, with no end in sight. A wiser woman than me has said: “Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns.”[3] And, I would add, faith is also believing that even amid the mess, the light is there, and it will return.

Pretty much every person now regarded as an example of faith has at one point or another experienced serious doubt. The scripture mentions Abraham and Sarah, and their son Isaac, and his son Jacob. Moses struggled with faith and doubt. Even Jesus had moments of uncertainty –  not doubt, I think, in the way we would doubt, but uncertainty nonetheless. All the disciples, not just Thomas, and St. Paul himself – struggled with faith and doubt and uncertainty. Martin Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa – every one of them had times in which they questioned their own faith.

And therein lies the crux of the text – we all struggle with our own ideas, our own thoughts, our own beliefs, our own reasoning. We catch these brief and fleeting glimpses of the transcendent, and we wave them away with rational explanations or by simply forgetting about them. We often do the same with our doubts, trying to push them aside, or pretend they don’t exist. Sometimes we get angry about them, and start saying things like “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it.” But that still makes the whole business of faith all about us.

Hebrews 11 tells the story differently. This text reminds us that faith is a gift from God, and that through faith, we see that which we might not otherwise believe. Rarely do people come to belief through a reasoned and intellectual argument. Most of the time we know faith through a whole confluence of experiences, of stories, of actions and conversations; in short, we come to know faith through the living of it. We begin to live in faith through our relationships. That’s why baptism, and worship, and participation are so important.

You can’t whomp up faith by reading about it, and you can’t truly experience faith in isolation, and you can’t create love by just concentrating on it. We learn faith through the love and nurture of our faith communities. And in the times when we cannot believe, when we have doubts, or our jury is out, the community believes for us, has faith on our behalf.

We Presbyterians don’t have a list of doctrines in which we all must have faith. We say we believe in the “essential tenets of the Reformed Tradition” but if we ever made a list of those essential tenets, we wouldn’t really be Presbyterian and reformed!

So we, like Sarah and Abraham, live and walk and trust in faith, the faith that comes from God. And we trace that faith to the journey that began before time, in eternity, when God began to prepare a homeland for us, a place where we can rest, and trust in goodness and grace and mercy, and not in our own understanding. God began calling people away from certainty, from all that they knew as undeniably true. God called them to a new country,
to a place that God would show them.

And then God took on human form and came to live among us so that our experience of faith would be more than our intellects could encompass. God did the irrational, the illogical, and moved into our lives in ways that even now we have not entirely understood.

In Christ, God broke into the world and turned upside down our philosophies and our reasoning, and invited us to a new way of living, a way that transcends our petty arguments and invites us to a better country, to the kingdom of God where justice restores the broken, where the hungry are fed and the needy are cared for, where our best thoughts are God’s thoughts, and our hearts, which were restless with disputes and yearnings, can rest in the one who gives us faith that our lives mean something, and that whatever our final home,
we are standing on the shoulders of the giants of faith, and their faith is not based on logic or reason or argumentation but on love and trust and grace – the love of God, trust in God’s benevolence, and the grace we know in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

God’s grace does not depend on our faith, but our faith depends on God’s grace.
That’s what makes us Saints, and not Ain’ts.


[3] Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Seeking God

Seeking God
Hosea 11:1-11
August 4, 2013
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

1 When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.
2 The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols.
3 Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them.
4 I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.
5 They shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me.
6 The sword rages in their cities, it consumes their oracle-priests, and devours because of their schemes.
7 My people are bent on turning away from me. To the Most High they call, but he does not raise them up at all.
8 How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.
9 I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.
10 They shall go after the Lord, who roars like a lion; when he roars, his children shall come trembling from the west.
11 They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt, and like doves from the land of Assyria; and I will return them to their homes, says the Lord.

It doesn’t take much imagination to empathize with this God in Hosea 11. Think what this must feel like, this despair over a child who has gone astray. Maybe if you are a parent, you’ve actually experienced it, and I won’t presume to say I would know how that feels.
But I think most of us can imagine.

We last heard this text in worship a couple of years ago, so let me refresh your memory about the prophet Hosea, and his book. Hosea is the first book in the section of the Old Testament known as the minor prophets. This term does not indicate that they were minor league, lesser prophets, but that these prophetic books were shorter in length.

Hosea himself is a bit of a mystery. Scholarship and tradition situate him between 750 and 724 BC. If that dating is accurate, Hosea prophesied during a time of social turmoil. After the rule of Jeroboam II, a relatively peaceful reign, there came an extremely politically turbulent period for Israel. There were assassinations. Of the six kings to ascend the throne, after Jeroboam, all but one died violently. There was rampant political corruption and endless partisan intrigue and maneuvering. There were repeated wars on multiple fronts, and Israel’s foreign policy was often unpredictable. The national economy was a mess.

Economic abuses were common. There was a vast gap between rich and poor, so that social inequities apparent in the time of Jeroboam were even worse after his death. Wars on multiple fronts increased the national debt.  And the wealthy classes intensified their exploitation of the poor so that they could pay these debts. Many resorted to fraud and cheating. To add to the mix, there was a radical shift taking place in the theology of the Hebrew people. In their early years, the chosen people did not practice strict monotheism. God was the greatest God, but not the only one. Israel’s diverse religious beliefs and practices were influenced by those of other cultures, like Canaanite mythology.

The Canaanite god, Baal, was the storm god responsible for life-giving rains. In an arid climate like Israel’s, rains were a matter of life and death. So worship of Baal was accepted or at least tolerated in the earlier stages of Israel’s religious development. Now, it is being condemned by the prophet Hosea.[1] So that’s the context.

In terms of content, Hosea is book of heartbreak. Throughout the first ten chapters, we’re given a picture of God’s relationship to Israel through a poetic and prophetic metaphor. There are some seriously troubling issues with the particular metaphors deployed, because the major one is that of a faithful husband with a faithless wife. Taken at face value and without an understanding of the context, this is a book that is patriarchal, violent, disrespectful of women’s agency, and filled with imagery that depicts men owning women. The shame/honor culture of the middle-eastern religions is rampant here. For today, rather than get bogged down in those issues, which we can tackle in Bible Study, let’s remember that we are talking about metaphor, not a literal story.

You probably remember that Israel does not have much of a record of fidelity to God. God can’t trust the chosen people to keep covenant. And yet God continues to keep God’s covenants, to pursue them with love, to bring them home, and to forgive them. The primary metaphor for this in the first part of Hosea is that of marriage. Hosea has taken a wife, Gomer, whom he loves. And in spite this great love, Gomer is utterly faithless. Hosea can’t trust her for a moment. Every chance she gets, she hauls out her red velvet miniskirt and the false eyelashes, pulls on some platform boots, and goes downtown to pick up men in the tavern. Hosea seeks her, finds her, forgives her, brings her back. Still, she won’t stay, no matter how much he pleads with her. They have children who are named “God sows” “Not pitied,” and “Not my people.” Heartbreaking.

It’s a cycle we see throughout the Old Testament – God makes covenant; the people are unfaithful; God remains faithful, finds them, calls them home, forgives them. They stay for a while, and then something shiny catches their eye, a new trend, an attractive new god, gold or jewels, and off they go, chasing off like Gomer, drenched with cheap perfume, looking for love in all the wrong places.

For ten chapters, Hosea rehearses this heartbreak. And then in chapter 11, the metaphor shifts. Now we hear this loving, tender call to the runaway child. Now we hear the anguish of the loving father. Now we hear the agony of a mother’s breaking heart. 
“How can I hand you over, O Israel?”

God cannot give the people up for lost, any more than Hosea can give up on his faithless wife. God cannot give them up. God will not let them go. This shift is significant, because it is here that we experience, full force, the impact of God’s loving-kindness.

The Hebrew word is chesed. The contemporary word is grace. This is not an angry, vindictive, punishing God. This is a God whose justice is restorative, whose righteousness is all-encompassing, and whose loving-kindness is from everlasting to everlasting.

Our story is not so much different from the story of Hosea’s time – there is uncertainty,
there is economic inequality, there is political intrigue and global unrest, and people are fickle, faithless,  unreliable,  and inconsistent. But God is not. God is faithful.

We may suffer consequences as a result of our sins, but this is not a God who judges us deficient and metes out the penalty. This is not even a God who watches down the road for the prodigal, waiting patiently for us to come to our senses and come back home. This is a frantic father searching out the back streets for his runaway daughter, and when he finds her, he picks her up and tenderly carries her home, without recriminations or shouting.

This is a God who gets up in the morning and finding that we have slipped out the back door, goes out searching for us, wayward children that we are, and when we are found, lifts us up like a mother lifting her lost child, holding her sweet baby to her cheek, drinking in the fragrance of that little head, reveling in the soft weight of that child’s body, stroking the sturdy little legs, weeping for joy that her little one is back in her arms.
This is a seeking God!

The one who made us, who formed us, who taught us how to walk, cannot give us up. A love that was so great that it could not be alone called us into being for that purpose – to love and be loved. And when the beloved continued to sneak away into the dark alleys of life, that love took human form, took on a body that could embrace and touch and laugh and suffer, took on human form to show us how that love could heal and help, became love, became mercy, became grace.

That’s what makes this table a place of celebration.
This is where the party takes place
when the one that was lost is found,
when the runaway comes home,
when the beloved comes to her senses.

At this table, the God of chesed, of loving-kindness, of grace, welcomes us with open arms. And all those who are seeking God can come, and eat and drink and remember, and sit at table in the presence of God, who taught you to walk, and took you up in loving arms, and healed you, even though you did not know it. A seeking God who led you with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. A God who bends down to you and feeds you, who reaches out for you and holds you, like a trembling bird, in loving and gentle hands, and will not let you go.


[1] New Intepreter’s Bible commentary on Hosea