God Who?

Passage: Hosea 11:1-11
Date: August 05, 2007
Preacher: Dr Jim Moiso
Guest Preacher:

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As I worked with today's lectionary reading from Hosea, and as I let it work on me, I became increasingly drawn into it. The prophet Hosea wrote and preached from about 750 - 722 BCE, in the northern kingdom of Israel, with its capitol in Samaria. We know very little about the prophet, his origins or personal life. His writing/speaking style connotes a person of learning and great rhetorical skill. He understood Yahweh as the God of Israel, and Israel as the people of this God. Israel had come to know its God and be Yahweh's people through the exodus from Egypt, through God's leading and providing during four decades in the wilderness, and finally, through the gift of the land. The people lived in official, in covenant relationship with this God. The conditions of the covenant defined both the steadfast love of God and the requirements of the people. It was on the basis of this gracious theology, this holy history and relationship that Hosea announced God's indictment on the people.

Listen. Listen for what the Spirit is saying today to God's people from holy scripture. The first time I read it, I will add text and context notes as I go. The second time, straight through. Listen.

Notice how intimately the prophet begins to speak God's heart:
When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
The image emerges of the exodus from slavery into freedom, from no people into God's people. The word, "called," has the sense of summoning into relationship, adopting as one's own. Now, the change:

The more I called them,
the more they went from me.
They kept sacrificing to the Baals,
and offering incense to idols.
In the promised land, the people adopted the religious ways of those around them. Baal was at the top of the Canaanite worship pantheon, the god of storm and nature fertility. Remember the society was agrarian, and wholly dependent on rains arriving on time and on the soil's ability to grow a crop. The people left their allegiance to Yahweh who had brought them out of slavery for this new deity. They trusted no longer in their God.

Now, hear to this tender refection by God. The description is of astounding holy condescension.
Yet it was I who taught Ephriam to walk (Ephriam is another name for Israel),
I took them up in my arms;
but they did not know I healed them.
I led them by 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.

So, judgment seems to follow. Perhaps, if we listen carefully, what is described is not so much divine punishment as a reality that the people of Israel were already experiencing. Foolishly, their king had followed the advice of royal priests and others, and made an alliance with Egypt, and then refused to pay tribute to very powerful Assyria. Assyria, of course, responded forcefully. Exiles fled to Egypt, only to be enslaved. Later, others were taken to Assyria. The consequences of their actions were excruciating to God, as sometimes are the actions of one's own offspring. As parents, we get to ache for our children's pain. It is part of what it means to love. Through the prophet, God says:
They shall return to the land of Egypt
and Assyria shall be their king,
because they have refused to return to me.
The sword rages in their cities,
it consumes their oracle-priests,
and devours because of their schemes. (They are being invaded.)
My people are bent on turning away from me.
To the Most High (to Baal) they call,
but he does not raise them up at all.

Then comes an amazingly passionate self-questioning by Yahweh, God. The towns of Admah and Zeboiim are mentioned. They were completely destroyed some time before, and only existed as a memory. Finally, biblically, when one speaks of the heart, it refers to the center of one's thinking, one's reasoning, one's deciding. Listen to this astonishing internal dialogue in God:
How can I give you up, O Ephriam?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
How can I make you like Admah?
How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
My hart recoils within me;
my compassion grows warm and tender.
I will not execute my fierce anger;
I will not again destroy Ephriam;
for I am God and no mortal,
the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come in wrath.

And the concluding hope. It is possible that verse 10 was added later and the original oracle only included 1-9 and 11.
They shall go after Yahweh,
who roars like a lion;
when he roars,
his children shall come trembling from the west.
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 Yahweh.

The conclusion reverses the original consequences, bringing home that which was forcibly disbursed. Now, listen again to the prophet's passionate oracle, all together. (Read)

What kind of God do you hear in these lines? It is a long-standing Christian tradition to simplistically say that the Old Testament God is one of wrath, and the New Testament God is one of love. If one were to read the Bible carefully, one would discover God's wrath from Genesis to Revelation. We would also find the overwhelming love of God, from beginning to end. Surely we can sense God's wrath in Hosea.

When our parents gave us birth or when they adopted us, they had no idea what they were in for, which is probably a good thing. As parents, things matter which never mattered before. And their world changes, permanently. When I was single, I absolutely did not understand child abuse. It made no sense to me that anyone could even consider harming a tiny beautiful infant. Then I became a parent. Add to parenting, being a single parent maybe, with no one to spell the other, to confer with the other, to share the load with the other. Then add perhaps very young parents, with very little income. Then add cholic at 2:00 a.m. several nights in a row. Frustration and wrath rise. For me, the question changed from "Why is there abuse?" to "Why is not there more abuse?"

We tend to become angry because something matters. We care deeply that salmon are disappearing, or that a boss manipulates workers, or that someone we've trusted betrays us, or a young adult child turns her back on all of the family values. It feels like something is being violated. One time, I was working with a couple about a wedding. In the normal scheme of things, I asked how their families felt about their coming marriage. They both said that their families were against it, but that it did not matter, because the two of them were moving to Florida. Every once in a while, I wonder how their parents are doing. Wrath arises because something matters, not because a person or God is mean or vindictive. When wrath takes over, when it becomes the primary motivation, the results can become pretty destructive for everyone.

Here in Hosea, Yahweh God wrestles: to flush or not to flush. Notice, it is not: How can I spare them the consequences of their behavior? Not: How can I rescue them? They are still going to Egypt and Assyria. The sword is still in their streets. Rather, it is: In spite of the fact that they have deliberately, repeatedly ceased to claim relationship with me, deliberately disowned me, broken my covenant, can I, do I still claim them as my own? Because this is the O.T., some Christians would expect God to decide to zap them. How mistaken about God, the God of our Lord Jesus Christ. Finally, God announces: "I will not execute my fierce anger...I will not destroy...I will not come in wrath." Why? Because "I am God, and no mortal. I am different, I am holy. My compassion grows within me. I can set a limit in myself, and I choose to do so. Finally, regardless, I will bring them home."

Friends, the heart of this God, our God, is love-fierce love, not soft or sentimental, not squishy pushover love. Rather, God, the God we know in Jesus Christ, is love: pain-filled, deep, glad, suffering on our behalf, rejoicing-with-us, agonizing for us, demanding, empowering our highest good, justice-bringing love, forgiving love that will not let humankind go. This table, this meal we celebrate, embodies that extravagant "mattering" to the Holy One. Communion is not about God's judgment, God's disappointment in us, God's parental finger shaking in our faces, God's demands from on high attitude. There is no holy wrath here. Instead, this table defines God's profound capacity for grace. A line from a Letter written to Diognetus in the second century says it clearly: "There is no violence in God. God sent Christ not to accuse us, but to call us to himself, not to judge us, because he loves us." (Brother Roger of Taize, p. 84) Here we are called to God's self, because this is the God who loves. Believe it. Trust it. Bet your life on it. Live differently because of it. God who loves. Amen.