November 8, 2015
The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray
11 When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
2 The more I called them,
the more they went from me;
they kept sacrificing to the Baals,
and offering incense to idols.
3 Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
I took them up in my arms;
but they did not know that I healed them.
4 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.
5 They shall return to the land of Egypt,
and Assyria shall be their king,
because they have refused to return to me.
6 The sword rages in their cities,
it consumes their oracle-priests,
and devours because of their schemes.
7 My people are bent on turning away from me.
To the Most High they call,
but he does not raise them up at all.
8 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?
My heart recoils within me;
my compassion grows warm and tender.
9 I will not execute my fierce anger;
I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and no mortal,
the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come in wrath.
Our teenagers can be some of the most astute theologians in our midst. I remember a group discussion at our 8th grade commissioning retreat, with Rich and I and all the 8th graders and some of their mentors.
And the topic came up about the difference between the character of God in the Old Testament and in the New Testament. For one kid, this inconsistency in the nature of God was really troubling. He wanted nothing to do with the God of the Old Testament who seems so wrathful and punishing.
And even though God seems more loving in the New Testament, that didn’t cancel out what seemed to him to be the dark side of God.
This is a profound theological question: what is the nature of God? What is God like? Is God as changeable and inconsistent as we are? Will God be angry and unforgiving one minute, and loving and grace-filled the next? Does God change?
One of the other 8th graders chimed in and suggested, what if God is like a parent? What if, as humans beings grow in faith and understanding about God, that the way God relates to us changes?
What if God was relating to the Israelites the way a parent deals with a toddler?
A toddler cannot understand why they cannot do everything they want. They need rules and guidelines; they don’t always understand their punishment. Sometimes they believe their parent to be harsh and hard to understand, sometimes they believe their parent to be loving and forgiving.
Little did she know that she was making use of metaphor that the prophet Hosea used thousands of years ago to communicate how God relates to God’s people.
Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann writes that Hosea 11 is “among the most remarkable oracles in the entire prophetic literature.” Another scholar H.D. Beeby writes that when we get to Hosea 11, “we penetrate deeper into the heart and mind of God than anywhere in the Old Testament.”
Thanks to the narrative lectionary we get to spend a little time with this Minor Prophet.
Hosea is one of the few writings from prophets in the northern kingdom. We know this because of Hosea’s word choice: Israel and Ephraim describe the north, and Egypt and Asssyria were the powers they contended with about 800 years before Jesus was born.
Think of Hosea as a poet who uses evocative language – metaphors, images, hyperbole – to try to bring the listeners back to their senses, to wake them up, to get them to see God in a new way, to examine their lives and their actions.
Oftentimes the people prophets were writing to, were a lost people, and the prophets were calling them to return home. The prophets spoke of God’s judgement, but also of God’s forgiveness and love.
Hosea speaks about God’s relationship with God’s people in two different but very familiar ways. He begins by describing God as the faithful husband and his people as the unfaithful spouse. Hosea teaches how God feels about Israel, rejected, abandoned, and humiliated.
In chapter 11 we get this amazing description of God as a parent – God has taught Israel to walk, fed and healed them, lifted them up to God’s cheek, held them, bent down to them.
And the people of God ran the other way – in fact, they couldn’t even see that God was doing these things.
Again the beautiful thing about the narrative lectionary is that we remember back to the story of God making promises through Moses – this promise God made we call the covenant and it means that we belong to God and one another. The covenant makes us family – makes us adopted children and that is exactly the image that we find here in Hosea. Hosea writes that God called us. The word used for calling means both “to summon” and “to name” – God has drawn us in and given us a new identity. That is what happens in baptism to every single one of us.
According to Hosea, God calls us, and the more he calls us, the more we run the other way. The people Hosea was writing to were running towards the Baals – the Baals were tangible and immediate, and they asked less of you and promised everything – a bountiful crop and a satisfied family. Many Israelites hedged their bets by worshipping in the sacred places of YHWH, and also burning incense and calling out “Baal is alive” in the springtime. The Exodus was a long time ago, and Baal seemed much closer than YHWH.
We are rebellious and according to laws found in Deuteronomy, both parents could condemn a stubborn, rebellious son before the elders of the city, and he would be stoned to death (Deut. 21:18-21). God has a rebellious child on his hands and the child’s life hangs in the balance.
But now for the surprise. God, speaking in the first person, shifts from nostalgia for the young child, to anger over Israel’s disobedience, to language of lamentation: “How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? How can I make you like Admah, treat you like Zeboim? My heart turns over against me; my comfort grows warmly tender.”
Admah and Zeboim were little cities near Sodom and Gomorah which were destroyed when God’s anger burned against them.
There is this moment, where God changes.
God is moved with compassion, God is conflicted, God changes his mind.
God seems an awful lot like a human parent.
We see God’s pain. We see God’s love.
We see God have the same kind of anger and bitterness any disrespected parent might feel, and then God decides to act not as a human parent might – instead offering grace and forgiveness before the child has even acknowledged they’ve done anything wrong.
Biblical scholar Karl Plank concludes, “To be motivated absolutely by concern for the other — this is what it means to be God, not human. . . . Holiness is the turning of God.” When we cannot or will not repent and turn around, God does the turning.
God will not act like a human being, but will instead break his own law to offer grace.
We have this beautiful metaphor of God bending down low to us, and we reject God, and still God acts with love and grace.
Does that sound familiar?
That is our gospel story.
This is the good news, that when we catch a glimpse of the heart of God, what we find there is grace.
We find that the character of God in the Old Testament and in the New Testament are maybe not as different as we thought.
We jump from the words of Hosea to the words of Jesus telling the story of the Prodigal Son. And the story is eerily familiar.
We see a disobedient and unrepentant child and a parent who runs undignified out to embrace him before the community can punish and shun him. Again we glimpse the heart of God and find grace there. The relationship between parent and child, between God and us, is set right, not by punishing, but by forgiving.
We talk a lot about God’s grace, but what does it really matter for the rest of today, or the rest of our lives?
What does it mean for us that the one who created each one of us keeps relationship with us through forgiveness rather than through punishment and judgement?
For every shameful thing we do, God’s grace is there.
For everything we do that makes us think that God should punish us, God grace is there.
Every time we hold onto resentment and anger, we remember that God let go of resentment and anger towards us.
Every time we see another human being doing something and we want to cast judgement on them for saying something stupid or doing something stupid, we remember that God chooses grace over judgement.
God has the right to be angry, and to judge, and to be hurt and resentful, and God chooses not to.
That kind of grace will change your life if you let it.