The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost (July 28, 2019)
Hosea 1:2-10 (Common English Bible)
When the Lord first spoke through Hosea, the Lord said to him,“Go, marry a prostitute and have children of prostitution, for the people of the land commit great prostitution by deserting the Lord.” So Hosea went and took Gomer, Diblaim’s daughter, and she became pregnant and bore him a son. The Lord said to him, “Name him Jezreel; for in a little while I will punish the house of Jehu for the blood of Jezreel, and I will destroy the kingdom of the house of Israel. On that day I will break the bow of Israel in the Jezreel Valley.”
Gomer became pregnant again and gave birth to a daughter. Then the Lord said to Hosea, “Name her No Compassion, because I will no longer have compassion on the house of Israel or forgive them. But I will have compassion on the house of Judah. I, the Lord their God, will save them; I will not save them by bow, or by sword, or by war, or by horses, or by horsemen.”
When Gomer finished nursing No Compassion, she became pregnant and gave birth to a son. Then the Lord said, “Name him Not My People because you are not my people, and I am not your God.”
Yet the number of the people of Israel will be like the sand of the sea, which can be neither measured nor numbered; and in the place where it was said to them, “You are not my people,” it will be said to them, “Children of the living God.”
Someone in our Midweek Manna gathering, who read this before Wednesday morning, asked me if I was being divinely punished for something. “No,” I said, “but having to preach this feels a little bit like I’m having to pay the price for something I did in a past life.”
Since earlier in the summer I declared a commitment to preaching the challenging passages of the Old Testament, the lectionary decided to test me. Sometimes it offers an alternative text if the first one doesn’t quite mesh with the gospel reading. The alternative for today? The story of Sodom and Gomorrah, so it seems this was bound to be awkward either way you shake it.
I was reminded of something a guest preacher at St. Mark’s had told me a few years ago. It seems that he/she/they (I won’t name names) showed up to the former 8:30 service and read a rough-sounding passage. And someone asked, pleadingly, “Ugh! I don’t like this one! Can we just read Matthew 25 instead?”
Trust me, it is definitely tempting to pick a text that’s a little easier on the ears. But somehow that feels like cheating, at the least, or shortchanging the ways God’s living word has a way of consistently “sprouting something good from the dirt.” We, the church, have to deal with the messy parts of Scripture for several reasons:
- It’s our heritage as a global faith community and as a tradition.
- People over the centuries have sacrificed greatly to preserve these texts.
- The Spirit speaks through all the complexity and strangeness if we’re willing to listen.
There’s truth in here, and if we use the brains and hearts God gave us, we can catch a glimpse of it. Like Jacob wrestling with the angel, we say, “I will not let you go until you bless me.” (Genesis 32:22-32)
So let’s wrestle with Hosea here. A few of things to ponder:
- This is a very troubling text. Its language is harsh. It is unacceptable to speak this way about women and children. Don’t let it off the hook! It was acceptable in Hosea’s culture to use language like this, but that doesn’t make it right in our day and time. I can only imagine how this book has been used to justify gender-based violence and patriarchal ideas—not just this first chapter but in other places when the prophet uses a variant of the word the version I read translates as “prostitute” about 20 times. Other versions read “promiscuous woman” (NIV), “harlot” (NASB), and “whore” (KJV). Not OK!
- Hosea’s poor wife and their even more unfortunate children are not historical people. These are literary devices the prophet uses to speak about God’s relationship with Israel. The prophets do this, often employing extreme, provocative metaphors to express God’s seething anger at the people’s betrayal.
- Prophets were very much concerned with national and even international events. They weren’t fortune tellers, but social critics. “Concerned” puts its lightly. “Invested” too. Prophets were passionately inflamed with what we now call politics, war, economics, and religion, except that all of these weren’t different spheres of national life. There’s no separation of church and state here; it’s all one package and, for the prophets, it’s all relevant to God and God’s will. The prophets saw Yahweh as intimately involved in the affairs of the once-united, now divided kingdoms of Israel in the north and Judah in the south, and empires in the Near East which loomed menacingly around them. Gomer and her unfortunately named children are symbols for human waywardness. Which brings us to…
- Hosea’s central message, which is that Israel is unfaithful to God, deeply unfaithful, wantonly unfaithful, and God is livid about it. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the prominent Jewish theologian of the 20th Century and civil rights activist, put it:
To the prophet… God does not reveal himself in an abstract absoluteness, but in a personal and intimate relation to the world. He does not simply command and expect obedience; He is also moved and affected by what happens in the world, and reacts accordingly. Events and human actions affect in Him joy or sorrow, pleasure or wrath. He is not conceived as judging the world in detachment. He reacts in an intimate and subjective manner, and thus determines the value of events… This notion that God can be intimately affected, that He possesses not merely intelligence and will, but also pathos, basically defines the prophetic consciousness of God.”
In other words, God’s “got some skin in the game.” God has a stake in what human beings do and how they treat one another, whether they do justice, show mercy, or share abundantly. This isn’t the God of philosophy, of abstract philosophical categories, but the Loving Creator of heaven and earth.
God cares. God cares enough about evil in the cares enough about the evil in the world to condemn it.
God cares at Jezreel, Jehu, the king of Israel Hosea mentions, assassinated the entire royal family and their relatives in a really brutal way. God cares that the northern kingdom is paying tribute to the Assyrians as their vassal state, given the fact that the Assyrians do what most empires do: extract, exploit, enslave, and kill. God cares that Israel worships other gods because of what the gods of fertility and agriculture demand in return for their favor—vile ritual and sacrifice—instead of what Yahweh demands: justice, love, and mercy. The God of Israel was a God of justice, and when the nation became off-center in its worship, things went downhill from there.
So, let me ask you, does God care now? Is God’s pathos–even suffering and anger–aroused now? Is God’s heart broken now, these days, with this country, with the wider global, human community in how we treat one another and the earth itself?
An obvious answer to those questions is a resounding “yes.” Cataloguing the ways that we, the collective “we,” show cruelty and indifference to one another and to creation is almost pointless. We know. We live in community with other people. We keep up with the news.
As terrible as this text sounds, did you notice the sudden turn at the end? Jezreel, No Compassion, and Not My People, Hose and Gomer’s children, are renamed. They are renamed “Children of the Living God.” God absolutely refuses to give up on the relationship, despite Israel’s unfaithfulness. Though there is this tension between anger and compassion in the Divine heart (for they come from the same place), compassion wins out in the end. God’s despair yields at what the people had done yields to hope for redemption.
God will not give up on the “family.”
That’s the good news for us this morning in the midst of so much bad news. Though angry, though brokenhearted, God has not given up on God’s world. It’s tempting to believe that but it’s not true.
How we we know that? As Mr. Rogers famously said in a TV interview, “My mother used to say long time ago whenever there would be any real catastrophe in the movies or on the air, she would say, ‘Always look for the helpers. There will always be helpers… Just on the sidelines… anybody who is coming into a place where there is a tragedy… Because if you look for the helpers, you’ll know that there’s hope.”
As, Jacqueline Arellano, a leader of Border Angels, a water-drop and community organizing network in southern California and one of the people I walked the Migrant Trail, posted the other day: “Look around you. If you pay attention to the right places, people are acting together in glorious ways to try to alleviate suffering. Find the people doing that work. Join them. The rest is really noise.”
God has not given up. God sends prophets, imperfect people, to tell the unvarnished truth, even in harsh ways. God sends prophets with a word of hope, too. God sends “helpers” into tragedies and catastrophes. God sends you and me into this world that angers God and us, into this world that breaks our hearts and God’s.
But we go fearlessly, knowing our names: children of the living God.