Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 31, 2022
Hosea 11:1-11 Commentary
When trying to teach seminary students some techniques for effective Bible reading, Hosea 11 is a chapter I often assign. I ask students to ponder the text and to then make a recording for me of what they would deem to be an effective interpretive reading. I am often floored by how bloodless some such recordings turn out to be. Too often students take on that “I’m Reading the Bible Now” tone of voice in which they seem to be under the impression that a monotone, non-inflected reading is the only style appropriate to the holy words of God.
Every once in a while, however, I am delighted by those students who “get it” when it comes to Hosea 11. These are the ones who catch the anguish of God in the text. These are the ones who are perhaps themselves parents and who know a thing or two about raising kids. And so their reading of the text catches the tenderness—the almost nostalgia-like cadences and intonations—of the first 4 verses.
They then shift into the anguished-driven anger of verses 5-7 in which the divine Parent of this passage is pulling his hair out over kids who won’t listen, who make horrible mistakes, and who earn a parental threat of punishment and rebuke. But then there’s the full stop, the pause, the deep breath that is taken in and then exhaled with a quaver before the compassion of a parent comes roaring back in verse 8. How well we parents know the swiftness with which we can pivot from anger to tears.
Your kid did not stay with you in the bookstore in the mall the way you asked. You turned your back for just one moment to check out a book display and then when you turn back, little Jill is gone. You put down the books you had been intending to buy and race through the store and then finally out into the mall. Panic is rising in your throat like bile, your breathing grows faster and shallower, and tears are beginning to leap into your eyes when suddenly . . . there Jill is, walking into the toy store just down the mall a ways. You run over to her, grab her by the arm, and through gritted teeth and in a voice tight with anger you spit out the words, “Don’t you ever do that to me again! What’s wrong with you! Don’t you know . . .” and then you stop talking so as to pull the child to yourself in an embrace that is infused with all the love you have in your heart for this kid! “You scared me, honey! What would I do if I lost you?”
It reminds me of the scene near the end of the movie Sleepless in Seattle. Eight-year-old Jonah is determined to help his widower father, Sam, meet Annie, the woman he is sure is the right one for his dad. So he manages to get himself from Seattle to the top of the Empire State Building in New York where Annie might be on Valentine’s Day. Sam becomes instantly frantic when he learns what has happened and dashes by plane across country, finally locating Jonah on the Observation Deck. When they meet, Sam is beside himself with joy and yet is consternated and can still feel the anger and the fear at this terrifying stunt his son had pulled. He is as we say today “a hot mess.” As he embraces Jonah, he nearly begins to weep. Again, most parents know this combination of feelings. (You can see the scene here in the first minute and a half.)
Last week in the commentary for Hosea 1, we noted the utter surprise of how that opening chapter concludes. Most of Hosea 1 is doom and gloom, judgment and predicted punishment. It looks like it’s all over for the people of God except that suddenly and before the chapter ends, there are all these words of restoration and hope that come from seemingly out of nowhere.
But in fact they do not come out of “nowhere” in Hosea 1 nor does the return to parental compassion come from out of “nowhere” in Hosea 11. Where it comes from is the heart of God. As noted last week, Abraham Heschel did masterful work years ago in reminding us that despite all the caricatures of how different the God of the Hebrews is over against the one identified as the Father of Jesus Christ, the fact is that the God of the Bible is never fundamentally an angry deity.
It is divine love and grace and mercy that sets the tone all along in the Bible and where there are outbursts of judgment, even anger, those, too, can be traced back to the fierceness of God’s love and holiness—a love and a holiness too pure and too serious merely to do no more than ever and again wave off actions and attitudes that are at variance with who God is, what God has done, and where God hopes to lead his people. It is not a loving parent who tolerates just anything her child wants to do but an unloving one. It is not a loving parent who just laughs when his child gets lippy or swears at him but a wimpy parent who is confusing tolerance with love.
But where there is true love, it always sets the tone at the end of the day. Yes, even when we have those Hosea 11 moments of getting so exasperated we really do contemplate just about killing the rebellious child, in the end we end up in tears and with a compassionate desire to do anything we can—even to the point of great personal sacrifice—to help the child. In the happiest possible scenario the kid him- or herself comes back around and realizes the goodness of the parent and how much he has done and has sacrificed over the years. It doesn’t always happen, of course, but sometimes it does.
In God’s case he will ultimately find a way to keep his children close to him by making his own Son one of those human children as a prelude to making it possible for God’s Spirit to move right into the hearts of once-rebellious kids. “My Father and I and the Holy Spirit are going to come and make our home with you,” Jesus once told the disciples.
That’s a lyric image and promise. And the roots of it are on brilliant display in Hosea 11.
One of the earliest heresies condemned by the church was the teaching of a man named Marcion. Marcion could not reconcile the God of grace and love whom we meet through Jesus in the New Testament with the God of anger and punishment whom we meet in places like the Book of Joshua. Marcion saw the differences between the two Testaments as so great that his solution was to posit two different gods. The gracious God whom Jesus called Father must be a different God altogether from the law-giving and sin-punishing God whom the Israelites called Yahweh. Two different Testaments, two different Gods.
Marcion simply could not combine justice and mercy. But by rejecting Marcionism, the church has been on record for two millennia that not only can we combine justice and grace in one God, we must do this. Again, however, we can acknowledge the biblical material that gave Marcion fits. It’s some of the same material that provides fodder for contemporary writers who claim that the reason the God Jesus calls Father is so gracious by the time you get to the New Testament is because this God grew up and became more mature in the course of the Old Testament.
For instance, some of us may know an older person who was a bit of a hot-head when he was younger. He had precious little patience with his kids and was known to bite people’s heads off if the least little thing annoyed him. But over the years he mellowed, matured, graduated perhaps from the school of hard knocks. And so now he is quiet and patient. What happened!? Well, if you see something like that, the conclusion everyone draws is that this person changed over the years.
Some today want to make the same claim for God–God changes over the course of Scripture. But that cuts against the grain of our belief that God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Of course, we do allow some changes to occur in God. For instance, the Son of God had not eternally been a human named Jesus but became human at a certain point. That was a change for God, a new experience, if you will. We also believe that because of what happened to Jesus on the cross, God tasted death for us in a way that had never before happened. But saying that is different from saying that the heart of God had to grow up so that he would change from being short-tempered to eternally patient.
In fact, Christian theology has long rejected the teaching captured in the German phrase “die Umstimmung Gottes,” which means “God’s change of attitude.” Most orthodox theologians try to make abundantly clear that the cross of Jesus did not appease a fire-breathing angry God. God did not become loving on account of Jesus’ sacrifice but rather it was precisely the eternal love of God that sent Jesus to this world—and yes to that cross—in the first place. Sin was paid for, atonement was made, what had been wrong was set to right again through Jesus, but God himself was as loving after Jesus died as he had been before.
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