Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 31, 2016
Hosea 11:1-11 Commentary
Few issues seem to more deeply divide North American Christians than the final fate of God’s Jewish people. Will God save them en masse so that all Jews get to experience the peace of God’s new creation? Will the Holy Spirit convert some Jews to the Christian faith before Christ returns? Will God finally grant all Jewish salvation through a faithful relationship with Jesus Christ?
Those are, of course, questions the Old Testament text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday doesn’t explicitly address. Hosea 11 focuses, instead, specifically on 8th century BCE Israel and its relationship to the Lord. Yet the Scriptures often at least indirectly address universal questions by dealing with specific people or occasions.
Earlier in his prophecy, of course, Hosea describes Israel as God’s “wife” when the prophet describes his own relatively young marriage to adulterous Gomer. However, our text speaks of the Lord as Israel’s loving parent.
Of course the Bible generally refers to God as “Father.” Yet God is neither male nor female in the way we usually think of such terms. God has the loving attributes of both a Father and a Mother.
This seems highly providential. After all, God is the perfect Father. Some parents, however, have deeply scarred their children. So if we thought of God only as Father, for instance, some of us might have a hard time trusting the Lord.
That’s a reason we can be thankful that the Bible also uses feminine imagery to describe the Lord.
The Scriptures never explicitly refer to God as our heavenly Mother. Yet they seem to describe God as having some “motherly” characteristics. Psalm 131, for example, compares God to a mother who soothes her baby. The New Testament also compares God to a woman who searches for a lost coin.
Hosea understands about being a dad. He has, after all, raised three children, maybe as a single parent. So perhaps the prophet shouldn’t surprise us when, as he thinks of God’s relationship with Israel, he emphasizes how much God has done for God’s child that is Israel.
“I” statements dominate God’s description of God’s history with Israel verses 1-4. They describe actions largely performed by parents. In verse 9, of course, God insists that God is “God, not man.” Most of our text, however, emphasizes the way God stoops to our level. Based on this, James Mays compares God to a parent who bends down to pick up and cuddle a baby.
We profess that God has only one eternal, natural “child,” the Son we know as Jesus Christ. Israel, then, can only be God’s adopted “child.” That means that God didn’t just free Israel from Egyptian slavery. God also somehow adopted her into God’s family.
Some modern adoptive parents can learn virtually everything about the child they’re adopting. God also knows everything about Israel. Yet God graciously sets God’s love on and chooses Israel to be God’s child in spite of everything God already knows about her. So Israel (and, frankly, you and I) are a bit like child in the orphanage who has special needs whom no one wants to adopt.
Yet we know that bringing any children into the world and raising them always entails some risk. Parents wonder how both children they adopt and those to whom they give birth will turn out. After all, even the most loving parents sometimes have rebellious children. So we shouldn’t be surprised that our loving God’s adopted son Israel turned out to be so radically different from God’s natural Son Jesus Christ.
We sometimes want to at least silently blame parents for their children’s rebellion. Don’t we, after all, sometimes speculate that that rebellious boy’s dad was too demanding or that that troubled woman’s mother was just too overbearing?
Of course, parental flaws sometimes negatively impact our children. Any physical, mental and spiritual health our children enjoy is nothing less than God’s miraculous gift. However, Israel’s plight reminds us that even the most perfect Parent sometimes has rebellious children.
After all, while Jesus is God’s faithful Son who doesn’t count equality with God as something to which to cling, in the Garden, Adam and Eve are God’s rebellious children who try to make themselves (even more than God creates to be) like God. Jesus doesn’t rebel against God, even when Satan ruthlessly tempts him in the desert. In her own wilderness, however, Israel stubbornly rebels against the Lord.
In fact, says Hosea, the more God called to Israel the farther she, like a rambunctious toddler, ran away from the Lord.
Jesus is the faithful Son who submits to God’s will, even though it costs him his life on the cross. Israel is the rebellious son who relentlessly resists God’s will. God called Israel the adopted son to bring God’s salvation to the world. However, God had to send God’s natural Son Jesus into the world to fulfill that mission because God’s adopted child Israel failed to do so.
As a result, God warns in verse 5, some Israelites will flee the advancing Assyrians by literally returning to Egypt. However, since “Egypt” is also a biblical symbol of exile and slavery, God is also warning that the Assyrians will cart many, if not most of God’s rebellious children that are the Israelites into exile.
Sometimes parents must lovingly punish their children. Such punishment generally hurts the parents more than it hurts their children. We might say something similar about God’s discipline of Israel. God must punish Israel for her rebellion. Yet in verse 7 God still refers to her not as “spoiled brats,” or naughty children, but as “my people.”
So while Israel has strained her relationship with the Lord, God has not yet let her break it. That’s why God’s expression of anguish in verses 8-9 shouldn’t surprise us. Elizabeth Achtemeier says it’s as if God breaks out in wrenching sobs there. Those verses show the Lord to be like a loving parent who agonizes over the suffering his daughter’s rebellion has brought on herself.
In fact, God says God simply can’t give up God’s adopted child that is Israel. After all, God isn’t like some frustrated parents who simply abandon their children to their rebellious ways. God is, as God says in verse 9, “God, and not man – the Holy One” in Israel’s midst.
Our Lord is a holy God. That means that God is different than anything or anyone else. While God created people to be in some ways much like God, God remains qualitatively different from all human beings and other creatures.
Yet Hosea reminds us that this wholly other God is also willing to be in God’s people’s midst. This God whom not even heaven and earth can contain is willing to limit himself by bending down to “feed” and care for God’s children. We see that, of course, most clearly in God’s Son becoming one of us in Mary’s womb.
So while parents may kick a rebellious child out of their house, God our Father is completely different. God’s love is, after all, inexhaustible. The Lord can’t stop loving, even in the face of faithlessness and refusal to return God’s love. God will not abandon God’s people, whom God lovingly adopted, because God is a God who is love.
God is also completely sovereign. Not even Israel’s sinfulness can change that. So while Israel will not and does not repent, her attitudes and actions can’t, finally, dictate what God will do. God will be what God is — sovereignly loving. So beyond Israel’s rebellion, beyond Assyria’s conquests, beyond human will and working, God’s love will triumph. God’s holiness and sovereignty rule the world. So nothing in all creation can overcome, or as Paul writes, separate us from that love.
God’s unmerited grace, not human sinfulness, rules the day. At the cross, of course, God’s love and anger with sin merge into one mighty flood that nearly destroys Jesus. At Jesus’ empty tomb, however, God’s love spreads beyond Israel to people from all over the world.
Yet Paul suggests that God still somehow includes Israel in that sovereign love. By the Holy Spirit, God lovingly creates a new Israel that’s composed of both Jews and Gentiles. It was humans, after all, that put God’s only natural Son, Jesus, to death. Yet God refuses to surrender the world God loves to the effects of the universal sin and death that so clearly demonstrates.
Instead, God’s sovereign love raises Christ from the grave and wins victory over all wrong. That sovereign love freely offers to people everywhere a new life in God’s blessed future. God’s unmerited grace rules human history in such a way that we can only receive it with our faith.
The Bible gives ample testimony to the fact that God eventually lets some people have their rebellious way. However, our text at least suggests that God’s grace may somehow scoop up far more people than we might assume. It may even eventually snatch people we love who don’t yet love the Lord from the brink of hell. After all, God’s parental love, not human sin, has the last word.
In The Virtue of Faith and Other Essays, Robert Merrihew Adams writes, “Ideal love isn’t just benevolence. ‘I wish you well.’ It’s desire for personal relationship involving union of some kind. The lover doesn’t just want the beloved to be served; the lover wants to be the one doing the serving. He wants closeness. And a mother feels terrible if she fails to protect her child from being scalded by a coffeemaker whose cord she didn’t tuck away out of reach; she feels terrible that she’s the one who failed.
Yes, God wants our love and praise, but not just because it would be good for us. God wants it because God wants us; God actually wants a kind of union with creatures like us. God is like a jealous husband. God is like a jealous parent. Christ gave himself up for the church because it was his bride. God wants union, fellowship.”
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