Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 24, 2022

Hosea 1:2-10 Commentary

We teach a certain rule-of-thumb to our seminary students.  We talk about it as colleagues in ministry.  And deep down we intuitively know this truth anyway.  We preachers know that it’s at best dicey to use our spouse and children as sermon illustrations, exemplars of behavior good or bad, or just generally as the starting point for preaching and teaching and ministry.

Tell it to Hosea!

The prophets in ancient Israel were a curious lot.  They were drawn from every segment of society back then.  They varied in their degrees of sophistication and eloquence.  They varied, too, by how wildly the Lord God had them behave.  Not all had to walk around buck naked and howl like a jackal, but Micah did.  Not all engaged in imagery that was now and then decidedly pornographic, but Ezekiel did.  But seldom was the prophetic task as personal, as intimate, as the commission given to Hosea.  He had to marry a woman of low morals with a bad reputation and father children of unfaithfulness with this unfaithful woman.  He had to build a family that he knew full well his wife would destroy by keeping up her former ways on the side.

A “Focus on the Family” vignette this is not!  Indeed, the drama of all this makes you wonder just how tortured Hosea’s home life really was.  And then there are those three children whose very names are redolent of terrible things.  Today it would be like naming your first son Watergate, your first daughter Homely, and your next son Terror.  Can one think of three-more off-putting names than the ones God assigned for Hosea and Gomer’s children?

The inside of Hosea’s home—and the interior of Hosea’s heart—must have been a tortured hell.  But probably that was God’s intention all along.  Because few of the prophetic books in the Old Testament display a kind of tortured rivenness better than Hosea.  How Hosea felt mirrored how God felt.  And so this book careers between abject statements of loathing and soaring statements of restoration; between damning words of judgment and lyric sentiments of hope.  And so very often these opposing sentiments are nestled side-by-side with each other.  The one all but inevitably follows the other.

We see that even here in Hosea 1.  Verses 10 and 11 are not exactly where you expected to end up in this chapter given everything that happened in verses 2-9.  Yet suddenly and seemingly from out of nowhere, that most ancient of covenant images emerges: the sand on the seashore.  In a flash we are transported back to Genesis 12, to all things Abraham, to that promise that God would build a covenant people that would ultimately outnumber the stars in the sky and yes, the sand on the seashore.  No sooner does that more reassuring image get projected onto our mental screens, and we see a reversal of the terrible names Hosea had to give to this children: the Jezreel that was to be judged would one day exult; the No-People would become children of God again even as the Unlovable would be swaddled and engulfed in a divine love that would know no end and no boundaries.

Who could see this coming?  Who?  Well, perhaps anyone who really understands that Yahweh is finally a God whose number one characteristic is grace, is chesed, the lovingkindness celebrated in the Psalms again and again and again.  No, that divine trait does not make God a softy.  He is deathly serious about holiness (his own first of all but also that of his covenant people) even as he is deathly serious about justice among people and a healthy respect for the creation he made.  (Hosea 4 will make clear that among the things that God is angry about in Hosea’s day was the rape and pillage of the physical creation as Israel’s sins of injustice became so grievous that the land was being polluted and sullied as a result).

God could not and would not tolerate just anything.  But for God these were roadblocks to his ultimate goal of being one with his people, not dead ends.  They were obstacles to be surmounted, not a reason to give up on the whole project of the covenant made long ago with Abraham.  Somehow, some way, God was going to be faithful even if it about killed him to do so (which ultimately it did, of course—cf. Good Friday, etc.).

Because that beating heart of compassion and love could not finally be stilled within the divine breast, you find passages like Hosea 1 and Hosea 11 (next week’s Old Testament lection) in which God pivots from completely proper and understandable fury over sin and injustice to a tender statement of restoration and love after all.  No, the situation as it stood with Israel was intolerable.  It could not stand.  As with Hosea’s wretched home life with Gomer and their children, so God could not put up with this tension and this pressure forever.   Something had to give, as they say.

And something would ultimately give.   There would be in the near-term great suffering for God’s people.   The lyric words of hope and restoration would come to pass, but not lightly, not tritely, and not immediately.   Actions have consequences that even God is not always able or interested in heading off when people so wantonly choose to pollute their lives and their hearts and their very environment with the stinking fruits of sin and evil.  There could truly be no hope for even ultimate justice in the universe if every instance of smaller-time justice were thwarted as though the universe never operates on the principle of actions having consequences.

The great scholar Abraham Heschel did landmark work on the theme of divine anger.  One of Heschel’s key points was that for the God of Israel, anger was never a constitutive characteristic or attribute.  God was never just an angry deity.  Anger was not a default setting.  It was, at most, a reaction of love offended.  But it’s the love that leads the way and it is the love—not any anger or fury or piece of retribution—that will have the last, good cosmic word.  To that elegant and hope-filled fact, Hosea 1 bears most wonderful testimony.

[A Pastoral Aside: The whole book of Hosea is an example of something one encounters a lot in the Old Testament prophets; viz., using the image of a wanton woman, of a prostitute or a whore, to stand in for fallen Israel.  But as a colleague of mine has pointed out, this can be for many women a painful set of imagery.  Sermons on passages like this almost need a trigger warning for certain people in the congregation as well as a highly thoughtful and careful handling of the imagery and the language.  There is too much potential for hurt, too much potential for using women generally in a negative manner to be careless with this imagery and with the words we use in sermons.  So receive this as a word to the wise.]

Illustration Idea

In her book Speaking of Sin, Barbara Brown Taylor has a chapter that bears the rather startling title, “Sin Is Our Only Hope.” It seems an oddly perverse title and yet Brown Taylor makes a good point. After all, if we look around us in life, we see so much that is painful. We see children abused and spouses cheated on. We see corporate greed and wanton pollution of God’s beautiful earth. We see people who have fried their brains with cocaine and drunk drivers who run down children playing hopscotch on a sidewalk. We see suicide bombings that reduce precious human bodies, the very temple of God’s Spirit, to so many severed limbs and organs.

If there is no such thing as sin–and what’s more, if there is no God who can declare a definitive judgment on what is sinful–then there is no hope that anything can be salvaged. Sin is our only hope because if sin exists, then so does sin’s opposite: namely, a moral goodness to which God can restore us. But if there is no sin, then there is nothing to hope for because there never was any better world from which we fell away in the first place.

If there was once what John Milton called a “paradise lost,” then there is the possibility that a gracious God can make possible a “paradise regained.” But if there is no sin, there is no paradise to restore because life turns out to be just a booming, buzzing confusion with no right, no wrong, and no God to tell the difference.


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