Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 4, 2019
Hosea 11:1-11 Commentary
Marcion was the first to do it, but surely not the last. In the middle of the second century after Christ, Marcion taught that the God of the Old Testament was different than the Father of Jesus Christ. The God of the Old Testament was angry, violent, judgmental, and not worth following if you were a follower of Jesus Christ. For many unwitting contemporary Marcionites, the Old Testament is a closed book.
And that’s a shame, because Old Testament passages like Hosea 11 open up the heart of God in a way that will move any follower of Jesus to tears of gratitude and love. In Hosea 1-3, we saw God as a jilted lover, a husband betrayed by an adulterous wife. Here we see God as a broken-hearted parent, a Father or Mother whose child has turned away from his loving parents to follow a worthless gang that wanders the neighborhood promising the good life it can never deliver.
Does God get angry? Yes, what parent doesn’t when their child wanders into self-destructive ways? Think of the outrage expressed by the parents of opioid addicted children. Does God say hard things? Of course, what parent doesn’t when years of love are spurned for the sake of cheap and fleeting pleasures. Does God punish? Absolutely. When we see parents who let their children wander into traffic or steal drugs from the medicine cabinet, we say that they are neglectful, that they don’t love very much or very well. A loving parent will do anything to save the child they love.
That’s what the Old Testament shows us about God, and nowhere clearer than Hosea 11. God is not an Idea, a Force, the Unmoved Mover of the Greeks or the “unified field” of today’s new age mystics. God is a Person, a Parent (I use Parent rather than Father or Mother, because the Hebrew of Hosea 11 has no gender hints). God is a Parent who loves God’s children to death. Hosea 11 opens up the broken heart of our Divine Parent with what amounts to a soliloquy, God on center stage speaking his thoughts for all of us to hear.
Perhaps the central word in this passage is “changed” in verse 8. The idea of God’s heart being changed has always presented a deep philosophical problem for those who believe in the simplicity of God. That’s the idea that God is complete in himself, that he is not influenced by outside forces because he is absolutely self-sufficient. If God were to change, doesn’t that entail that God was wrong before, that God needed more information, that God had to change to become more perfect. Those are powerful arguments, but they run smack dab into texts like this one: “My heart is changed within me.”
Another translation gives us a way out of the philosophical dilemma, and into the whipsaw changes in the text itself. The word “change” can be translated “churned,” like the churning sea, where underwater currents and heaving waves collide and create a chaotic sea. That’s what we see in this picture of our broken-hearted Parent—colliding emotions, seemingly conflicting intentions, tender love crashing into terrible wrath, threats of destruction followed hard by promises of deliverance. “My heart churns within me….” Any loving parent knows that a broken heart is just like that.
In verses 1- 4 we are given an unforgettable picture of God’s love for Israel, from adoption to adolescence. Israel was not God’s natural born (only begotten) Son. Imagine adoptive parents visiting an orphanage in the olden days, seeing a particularly attractive or miserable orphan, and falling in love on the spot. “When Israel was a child, I loved him and out of Egypt I called my son.” From that moment on, God’s love was intense and never ending.
Any parent can remember helping a little one learn to walk. “lt was I who taught Ephraim (an alternative name for Israel) to walk, taking them by the hand….” And when they fell, scraping their knee or bloodying their nose, I healed them, even though they didn’t realize it was me. “I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love….” Here the language gets confusing, as God uses farm language with this mention of a yoke, unless that is a reference to the yoke of slavery in Egypt. The idea is that God tenderly led Israel, perhaps a reference to the wilderness wanderings. That is surely the meaning of, “I bent down to feed them.” God recalls the Exodus and the Wilderness and, by implication, the Conquest of the Promised Land, all evidence of his great love for his adopted child.
But (that’s the word with which verse 2 begins), in spite of God’s tender love, Israel consistently and stubbornly wandered off to worship other gods. Like a rebellious toddler running away from his parents into the crowded confusion of the mall, says God, “the more I called Israel, the further they went from me.” In spite of all I had done for them, “they sacrificed to the Baals and the burned incense to images.”
Why would Israel do that? Because the neighbors did. Because they were covering all the bases. Because they wanted to be prosperous and safe. That’s what the Baals promised, according to their neighbors. How would you feel if your child began to hang around with the neighbor who was a drug dealer, calling him “Daddy” and smoking his dope?
That’s exactly how God felt—broken hearted and angry. We hear that justifiable anger in verses 5-7. If Israel wants to be in bondage to foreign gods, well then, let them go back to Egypt, or its future equivalent, Assyria. If they don’t want me to rule over them in my parental love, let them be ruled by Assyria with its military power. This is not what God wants for his child, obviously, but this is what will happen, because “they refuse to repent.” “My people are determined to turn from me.”
This is not a violent, vindictive God lashing out in rage; this is a heartbroken parent finally allowing the consequences of a rebellious child’s behavior fall on that child. Maybe the only way they will learn is if I let the Assyrians attack them (“swords will flash in their cities, will destroy the bars of their gates”) and lead them into Exile. After all these years of calling out to them and answering their prayers, I will temporarily stop answering their prayers and I won’t “exalt them,” raise them up, come to their rescue. In effect, God says in verses 5-7 what many a frustrated, desperate parent has said, “I’ve had it. Let them suffer the consequences of their foolishness.”
But once again, as had happened for centuries and will happen to the end of time, God’s love overwhelms his anger. Or maybe it’s better to say that God’s love expresses itself in a more tender way, because anger is an expression of love. Hear the agony of God. “How can I give you up, Ephraim?” For a powerful effect, put the names of your parishioners in place of Ephraim. “How can I hand you over, Israel?” Then, in a reference to the cities of the plain next to Sodom, cities that were completely destroyed because their wickedness was so great, God says, “How can I treat you like Admah and Zeboim?” I can’t utterly destroy you. You are my child.
Now here is the dramatic turning point of this divine soliloquy. “My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused. I will not carry out my fierce anger nor will I turn and devastate Ephraim.” I still have my anger, but I won’t carry it out in complete destruction. Instead, in my compassion, I will punish my child to correct him. But I won’t allow their sin to completely destroy them.
Why would God change his mind? What has happened outside of God that moved him to change? Was it Israel’s repentance? No, Israel was still determined to turn from God, refusing to repent. It was nothing outside of God that caused this change in the way love is expressed. It was something within God. “For I am God and not man—the Holy One among you.”
God is not like us humans; he is Holy, that is, Wholly Other. There is a limit to our love. There are conditions on our love. Sometimes when we get angry enough, we lose our temper, we can’t control ourselves. Sometimes our children push us beyond our limit and we never speak to them again. But God’s love does not run out, has no limits, demands no conditions. So, in spite all of Israel’s sin, “I will not come in wrath.” Yes, Israel will go into exile. But I will not be governed by my wrath.
Instead, at the right time, I will come in love again. Then, and only then, Israel will follow Yahweh again. In language that is echoed in Revelation 5 and that was surely the inspiration for C.S. Lewis’ Aslan, Yahweh will roar like a lion. And God’s sinful, exiled children will come trembling (“No, Aslan is not safe, but he is good”). Trembling with reverence and relief, with gratitude and love, God’s children will follow their God and not wander away after other gods.
God kept his word. He did roar and the king of Persia let God’s people go home. “I will settle them in their homes.” But they and all of us continue to wander. It seems we never learn. That’s why God sent his other Son “out of Egypt,” to show the limitless love of God for sinners. On him, in our place, God did pour out his fierce wrath. We don’t want to hear that kind of talk today; indeed, some call that “divine child abuse.”
But it’s true to Hosea’s picture of God and to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. God hates sin because of what it does to his beloved children, and in his anger he must punish it. But loving us as he does, he says, “I will not come in anger, I will not devastate you.” Instead, I will do that to my only begotten Son. That was not “divine child abuse.” It was simply the gracious action of a brokenhearted Parent.
If we believe that, we will follow God with trembling. As the old hymn puts it, “My God, how wonderful you are; your majesty how bright! How beautiful your mercy seat in depths of burning light. Oh how I fear you, living God, with deepest tenderest fears, and worship you with trembling hope and penitential tears?”
I will never forget the funeral of little Jack. At the age of 9 he was killed in a car crash. His parents were bereft, so were his grandparents, so was his school, so was his church, and so was I. As I prayed for something to say at his funeral, God brought to my mind the words of Romans 8, those lovely words about God’s love that conquers all. But the words that seized my attention were the opening words of verse 31, “What then shall we say….” What do we say in the face of such a tragedy? We ask, Why, God, why? What is the answer to that agonized question flung for millenia into the face of God? What then should I say at the funeral of a 9 year old, with his parents and classmates and church members and me sobbing in confused grief? I said, “We do not know the mind of God. But we do know his heart. We’ve seen his heart in the life and death of Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son.” And we have heard it today in God’s brokenhearted soliloquy in Hosea 11.
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