today — tomorrow — forever
A sermon preached by Pastor Ken Carrothers on November 10, 2019
Personally, I think it is difficult to argue that Hosea 11 is one of the most beautiful and heart wrenching passages in the entire Bible. And at the same time, I have to admit, it can be hard to make sense of our reading today unless one knows the larger story of Hosea. Without the greater context, this section can sound sort of strange and weird. So let’s start with a little background on Hosea.
The book begins with God instructing the prophet to make his life a living parable. Therefore, he was to take a woman as his wife whose reputation was in serious question —a woman who knew a lot of people. God notes that the people of Israel were sharing their allegiance with any and all and God was tired of it. So Hosea went and took Gomer as his wife and they had three children together.
There was a time in my life when I thought no one struggled like I did on the first day of school. The teacher would go down their class list and try as I would I couldn’t stop them from calling out “Donald Carrothers.” It usually bought me a month or so of “Donald Duck” jokes or “Ronald McDonald.” But that was nothing compared to what Hosea’s kids must have gone through. Writer Fredrick Beuchner points out, Hosea named them something like “Not-pitied-for-God-will-no-longer-pity-Israel-now-that-it’s-gone-to-the-dogs so that every time the roll was called at school, Hosea would be scoring a prophetic bull’s-eye in absentia”[i] as his kids paid the price on the playground.
Through his marriage, through his kids names, Hosea’s life becomes a beautiful and heart-wrenching proclamation. Gomer is portrayed horribly throughout the book. Yet Hosea’s life reminds the people that God feels for Israel as Hosea feels for Gomer — namely rejected, abandoned and humiliated.
Now before going any further we need to acknowledge the harmful ways in which this book has been used against women. Theologians and scholars have noted how this book has been used to claim women are inferior to men, that women’s sexuality is devious and as justification of violent control over women. I don’t want to overlook or sidestep that awful reality, and at the same time it is perhaps true that only Hosea, and a marriage filled with unfaithfulness could reflect the beautiful and heart-wrenching nature of God in quite the radical way he does in chapter 11.
You see, Chapter 11 marks a change in the metaphor as things move away from a broken spousal relationship to one of a parent and child. Hosea speaks the words of longing as God declares, “when Israel was a child, I loved him.”[ii] If you are the child there is comfort in these words — but considering them as a parent one realizes what is at stake, especially as God goes on.
“and out of Egypt I called my son… it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. 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.”[iii]
This is a parent looking back through a picture album recalling all the memories. This is the parent caught in the memory of having two little hands wrapped around their fingers as the child took their first steps. It is recalling those formative years when they sat at the table and worked together through math homework, ran beside the child as they pedaled on their own and still cuddled and read stories before bedtime. It was the parent who was there to put the band aid on the scrapped knee that inevitably comes as the child explores the places their curiosity takes them.
Unfortunately, the skinned knee soon becomes the least of the parent’s worry. Soon the child grows full of independent ambition, pride and self-assurance that believes it can overcome any pitfall in its future. With children of 6 and 3 I have yet to experience the letting go, but I am told that it is one of the most difficult pieces of parenting. To see yourself in your child, to dream the possibilities that life will hold for them, to spend your life keeping them safe and then watch as the world draws them away into places that only seem to bring distress and despair.
The parenting God watches as the people become more and more distant. “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.”[iv] There have been plenty of folk who reference these verses as showing God’s wrath, but is that really what is going on? It seems more likely that these aren’t words of punishment, but rather, an acknowledgement of the natural consequences that follow the self-destructive and wayward movement of God’s people.
I have talked with too many parents who have watched their children being swept away into a life of overconsumption, excess and abuse. As the child’s allegiance to the addiction takes hold and their life spins out of control, a loving parent can only wait for them to return, hoping the next phone call is not the one that declares all options are over. This parenting God knows something of the pain of watching and waiting that these parents go through.
And God knows the anguish, sorrow and powerlessness one feels in these moments often manifests itself into an intense anger. The sense of betrayal runs deep and often leads to feelings of justice and fairness. Forgiveness and restoration give way to retribution and punishment. We hear this in God’s next words as God seems to draw a line in the sand. “My people are bent on turning away from me. To the Most High they call, but (I will) not raise them up at all.”[v] Parlance, we might say, “you made your bed, now lie in it” or anyone of a number of other statements that parents have thought to say or have said to their child in righteous indignation.
And while in our life those words often mark the end of relationship — mark the end of connection — in Hosea we inexplicably see the mood lighten. It is in this change that we find the heart of this beautiful and heart-wrenching passage. For God begins to reflect upon the consequences of God’s own choices and a new way emerges.
God asks four questions that are neither abstract nor hypothetical. All the questions are addressed directly to the people, as God considers the lasting implication of the consequences. “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?”[vi] two cities that were destroyed.
At the prospect of losing the relationship — ending the connection — God’s grace breaks through. The processing of the questions allow God to move into a radically new understanding of divine love. God is not trapped by a set of laws. In the wisdom of God, grace and justice become intertwined. Justice has an openness to the need for compassion and grace has as its goal justice for all. And in that is the Good News.
For we, like our ancestors, do not always follow God. We do not live into, nor trust our own belovedness in the eyes of God. Rather we spend our lives seeking to earn that which is already freely given. Despite God’s promise to be with always, we believe a world which says we are all alone. Rather than remember God has provided for us in the past and will do so in the future, we tell ourselves stories as though we have survived through our own effort alone.
And yet while we go our own way and are bent on turning from God, just as the people did in our reading — God does not do the same. They are God’s people and God’s grace prevails. We are God’s people and God’s grace prevails. God’s grace prevails.
It is not something we can make sense of through our human sensibilities and God knows this. For through Hosea God declares, “I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.”[vii] This is but one more moment in which we learn the metaphors we use to describe God that are set within the realm of the human reality can only go so far before they break. Ultimately God’s compassion, God’s love, God’s grace are beyond anything that will make sense to our human mind.
And that too is Good News. For it is only God’s mystery — that is God’s unique and radical difference from the ways of the world — that account for a love that keeps God present to the people as the people continue to turn away. And thanks be to God it is a love that did not stop back in ancient Israel — it is a love that continues to be offered to us — to all — today — tomorrow — forever.
Let us pray.
Loving and compassionate God, we need your love, even when we don’t see it — we need your love even when we, like wayward children, go our own way into dangerous places — we need your love when we fear that all is lost. We are grateful, we are overwhelmed, and we are thankful — for your love knows no bounds. Thank you most gracious God. Amen.
[i] Found at https://www.frederickbuechner.com/quote-of-the-day/2016/9/14/gomer on November 6, 2019.
[ii] Hosea 11:1 (nrsv)
[iii] Hosea 11:1,3-4 (nrsv)
[iv] Hosea 11:5-6 (nrsv)
[v] Hosea 11:7 (nrsv)
[vi] Hosea 11:8 (nrsv)
[vii] Hosea 11:9 (nrsv)