August 4, 2013
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
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. 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.