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I now invite you to turn in your Bibles to the prophet Hosea, chapter 11, and follow along as I read verses 1-11. Hear what the Spirit says to us.
1 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.
10 They shall go after the LORD, who roars like a lion; when he roars, his children shall come trembling from the west.
11 They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt, and like doves from the land of Assyria; and I will return them to their homes, says the LORD.
Amen. The word of God. Thanks be to God.
The 1997 movie, As Good As It Gets, had Jack Nicholson in an Oscar-winning role as a novelist with obsessive-compulsive disorder. He will not step on cracks in the sidewalk and has to go through a specific set of acts when locking the door. He also had a cleanliness compulsion that drove him to use one bar of Neutrogena per handwashing.
People who have a cleanliness compulsion wash their hands, their doorknobs, anything they might touch, over and over again. They are so obsessed that no matter how many times they do it, it is never enough.
People suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder deserve our compassion and help, but you could argue that all of the advertising with which we are bombarded every day of our lives has as its intent a desire to make us a nation of obsessive-compulsives. What do the advertisers want us to do? They want us to shop for more clothes, when our closets are already bursting. They want us to upgrade to the newest, latest gadget, even though we have not figured out how to use the gadgets we already have. Above all, they want us to buy all this stuff that supposedly makes us look younger, richer, thinner, or more exciting.
Another aspect of all this buying is that we can be obsessive about getting a bargain, saving a few bucks. In the New York Times "Dear Diary," section, there was this submission:
"The scene is a card store in Bronxville, New York. The time: a week or so before Valentine's Day. The cast, a couple, apparently married; they are examining valentine cards in the husband and wife sections. After making selections, they exchange and read the cards.
He: It's really beautiful. Thanks.
She: How very thoughtful. Thank you, dear.
They wish each other Happy Valentine's Day and kiss. Then they return the cards to the rack and walk out."
[Joseph A. Coyle, "Metropolitan Diary," New York Times, February 19, 1992.]
Now that is really cheap, but I suppose some people would say, they got a bargain, more power to them.
One of the most outstanding examples of successful advertising is found at “the golden arches.” Why is it that if you ask kids where they want to go to lunch, most of them say, “McDonald's.” And they always want the same thing, that combination of food and prize that the McDonalds folks, in a triumph of advertising genius, have named the Happy Meal. I do not think that the kids even care that much about the food, mostly it is the prize—which is just a cheap toy. But the message of McDonalds advertising is that you are not just buying chicken McNuggets and a tiny toy derived from a movie, you are buying happiness.
Now you could tell the kids that you will take them down to the Dollar Store and buy them a toy that will be better than what they get in a Happy Meal, and that they should just order food at the fast food place, but that does not work. They chant, "We want a Happy Meal. We want a Happy Meal." And other people are looking at you in disgust because you will not buy your children this meal of joy. So, the kids win, you buy them the Happy Meal, and it makes them happy, for about five minutes. They eat about half the burger, break the plastic toy, and that is it.
Thus, you can be assured that no young adult ever goes back to her parents and says "Dad, remember that Happy Meal you bought me? That is where I found lifelong joy.” Not so. The only folks who are really happy about happy meals are the owners of McDonald's. They have sold umpteen billion of them, so they are very happy. But you would think that the kids would eventually catch on to this arrangement and say, "I keep getting these Happy Meals and they do not give me lasting happiness, so I'm not going to be a sucker any more." But it never happens. They keep buying Happy Meals.
Now we older adults may say, “Only a child would be that naďve; only a child would think happiness could come in a brightly colored bag.” Unfortunately though, we adults are just as naďve as children. The truth about people is that as we grow up, we do not get any smarter; our Happy Meals just get more expensive. Yet, our society keeps telling us that happiness is always just a Happy Meal away. Thus our society makes it easy and acceptable to be obsessive about money, to be compulsive about material things.
But now let us add a religious twist. What if we are obsessive about God. People would say, “That is unbalanced, that is unhealthy.” We can be obsessed with sports, and no one thinks a thing a about it, but if we are obsessed with God, then, wow, we must have mental problems. We can be news freaks, and compulsively turn on CNN every hour or so, and that is all right, but if we search for the holy in our lives then we are strange.
And what about God? If God compulsively reaches out to us, over and over, does that make God a little weird? If God obsessively loves us, is God unbalanced?
In today's Old Testament text, the prophet Hosea reveals just how "unbalanced" God is. Since God took the risk of creating the universe, and creating humankind in his own image, God has compulsively stuck with us. Despite the fact that people almost immediately disobeyed God’s law and dismissed the divine presence, God has steadfastly refused to write us off.
Any parent knows that there are "those days" when our children are anything and everything but lovable. Somehow we get through the day and heave an enormous sigh of relief as the last one is tucked into bed. Yet looking down at the quiet, sleeping forms of our children—the same kids we yelled at, grounded, argued with, and swore we would disown—our hearts are suddenly stirred. Under the power of ridiculously obsessive, and obsessively ridiculous parental love, our own hearts reject the thought of any hardship or pain being visited on our dear little monsters.
God is such a parent. God's obsession with humankind led him to constantly muddle in human affairs, to involve divinity in history, to mix with the rabble of the earth and the rubble of our disobedience. Psychologists would call this "compulsive interference." The Bible calls it love. Ever since God took that first risky step and created Adam and Eve, God has loved all the descendants of the first family. God is so obsessed, so compulsive about the children of creation that God simply will not leave us to our own poor devices.
God was so obsessed with establishing first contact with us that God made the covenant with Abraham. God was so obsessed with teaching us that God revealed the Commandments and the Law. God was so obsessed with guiding us that God called prophets to speak the divine word. God was so obsessed with us that God cheated—God cheated death and cheated judgment. God was so obsessed with us that God "gave his only begotten Son that we should not perish but have everlasting life."
The agnostic looks at the universe and asks, “Who turned on the lights?” the believer looks at the universe, and knows the answer to the agnostic’s question. We know that God turned on the lights, but we have a question of our own. “Why?” Why did God create? Because God loves the universe. Make the question intensely personal. Why did God create me? Because God loves me.
There's a great Ziggy cartoon that has Ziggy standing on the edge of a cliff, admiring the sunset, and saying repeatedly, "Go God!" We have all been there with Ziggy and stood in awe of the power and majesty of God that we see in nature. It is the power and majesty of love.
God made us with love, and God's obsessive love assigns us value. Madeleine L'Engle portrays this with compelling urgency in her science-fiction fantasy A Wind in the Door. A battle for the soul of the cosmos is raging in the microscopic cells of a little boy. The forces of darkness are trying to "X" him, and all goodness, "out"—dragging them into the Nothingness. The boy can win this battle only if his true identity is named by others and his life is filled with Being. In the story, his sister calls out, "I hold you! I love you, I name you. You are not nothing. You are. I Name you Charles.... I fill you with Naming. Be!" [Madeleine L'Engle, A Wind in the Door (New York: Dell, 1973), 203.] Even so God says to us, you are not nothing, because I name you and I love you.
“I Loved Him”
Hosea 11:1 reads: “When Israel was a child, I loved him.” These words mark Hosea as the "love prophet" and chapter 11 is a "love chapter." In the New Testament, I Corinthians 13 is called the love chapter. In that chapter, the Apostle Paul describes various aspects of love. “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful.” We recognize immediately that Paul is not writing about ordinary human love. He is writing about divine love. He is writing about the kind of love that God has poured out in Christ.
And that is what Hosea is writing about. Earlier in the book of Hosea, God pronounced judgment upon the people for their idol-worship and infidelity. In chapter 11, the message of divine judgment melts into a pool of divine compassion. God’s judging fist unclenches to open out toward the beloved children with the imploring love of a rejected parent. So clearly does Hosea present the breadth of God’s love and the depth of God's commitment in this single chapter that it has been called by some the "John 3:16 of the Old Testament." (See The Wesleyan Bible Commentary [Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdman's Publishing Company, 1969], III, 583.)
Hosea changes metaphors in this chapter. Previously he has represented the relationship between God and Israel as that of husband and wife. Now he shifts to the image of father and child.to communicate the unquenchable nature of God's love for his people.
To Hosea, God is not out there somewhere. God is right here with us. We live in the house of God, and it is a house overflowing with love, attention, protection, and high parental expectations. Unfortunately, we often do not live up to God’s expectations. Israel did not either. The most moving thing about chapter 11 is this image of God as the eternally loving parent and Israel as the headstrong, rebellious child.
God says, “Out of Egypt I called my son.” This is clearly a reference to the Exodus. God says, I created Israel, I established this relationship. It might be supposed then that the Israelites would be devoted to God; However, from the beginning, Israel was a willful, wayward child. In verse 2, we read, “The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols.” God called Israel through his prophets, but they turned toward the local gods of the Canaanites, the ba'als. We might think that this blatant disobedience would ignite a divine rage, but God’s love is not founded upon our obedience. After all, no earthly parent gives up on a child because of disobedience, nor will God ever give up on us.
“I taught Ephraim to walk”
In v3, God says, "it was I who taught Ephraim [Israel] to walk ... " we have the image of a parent with arms outstretched to protect a toddler taking his first steps. The toddler takes the step on his own, but the parent’s hands hover just inches away, ready to grab the child if he should stumble. If the child falls, the parent catches him and sets him on his feet again saying, “That is all right. You can do it. Just try again.” If the child succeeds, the parent is ecstatic. “Yes! You did it! Yes!” That small success is as much a victory for the parent as for the child. So it is with God in his dealings with us. God rejoices in our victories, and takes us his arms and consoles us in our defeats. That is who God is, that is what a God of love does.
“How Can I Give You Up?”
When we picture a parent, we picture a man or woman doing a multitude of things with the child, holding a sleeping baby close, building sandcastles on the beach, reading a story—those are just samples. In Hosea 11:4, we have samples of what our God parent does. God says, “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.”
Notice that it does not say that God drags us in chains, but God leads us with cords. We are not like mules hitched to the plow, held in place by harness and driven along with blows. Rather we are children whom God gently guides along the way.
The righteous judgment of God reasserts itself as God declares in verses 5-7 that the disobedient Israel will be once again returned to bondage in Egypt and will feel the sting of a harsh new Assyrian master. But God cannot leave it at that. We hear God’s tears in v7: “My people are bent on turning away from me.” It is as if God cannot bring himself to accept Israel’s rebellion. In agony, God asks, “How can they do this? After the way I have loved them and showed them my love, how can they despise me?” But even if they do despise God, God still cannot reject them.
In verses 8-9, God's enduring love is expressed in the anguished cry of a parent: "How can I give you up, Ephraim?" While God did not shrink from destroying sinful Sodom and her sister cities Admah and Zeboiim, the thought of passing such an unmerciful final judgment on his people causes God's parental heart to "recoil." The tenderness of a parent's love overcomes any thought of retribution, and God declares in v9, “I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim.”
God does not explain this reprieve except to say, “I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst.” The “explanation” for God’s unmerited mercy is in Godhood itself: God’s nature is to love. So God says, “I will not come in wrath.”
God’s magnificent obsession is his love for us. What then about us? We also should have a magnificent obsession—our love for God. God has loves us with a love beyond all loves. How can we not love God with all our heart and soul and mind? Amen.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2003 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified 11/29/04