Scripture Passage: Hosea 2:14-23
In that day I will make a covenant for them
with the beasts of the field, the birds in the sky
and the creatures that move along the ground.
Bow and sword and battle
I will abolish from the land,
so that all may lie down in safety.
If you close your eyes and you picture God’s love, what do you imagine? What do you see?
Love is at the center of why we come here, right? Love is what we find, in God’s presence? We’re trying to learn how to be more loving people, trying to develop more love for the one who loved us first, trying to let ourselves be better loved.
Love isn’t one of the more common words in the Bible, though. Even when you filter out and and the and that and so forth, love comes in well under other words like king, land, Jerusalem, Jesus, or even words like holy, heaven, and peace.
Many of the stories are about love, of course. Love doesn’t have to be explicitly named in order to be the main topic of the conversation. It’s mostly about how we love each other, though, and how we love God.
We don’t get a whole lot of windows into what it looks like for God to love us, though, outside of the Jesus story. And even there, I find myself missing the inner monologues.
But Hosea… Hosea delivers all that internal emotion that we modern readers miss when we read through the Gospels.
Because sure, Jesus told a story about a woman who lost a coin, and he made a basket of food enough to feed thousands, and he prayed that we would all be one when he knew that his disciples were about to scatter, but why?
What was it like for Jesus to weep over Jerusalem, wanting to gather the people like a hen gathers chicks? What was Jesus thinking, as he cleared the temple of the moneylenders?
Jesus looked at the rich man with love, as he told the man to sell all his belongings and give the proceeds to the poor, and what did that love feel like?
Hosea gives us the window that we’re looking for, into what God’s own heart looks like.
The word of the Lord came to Hosea and gave him this command: Go, take to yourself a wife of harlotry and have children of harlotry; for the land commits flagrant harlotry, forsaking the Lord.
I’m not going to translate that directly into modern terms, but the general sense is that Hosea was told to go out and marry a woman who would cheat on him.
He was to live in a household with her and love her as a good husband would, without having that faithful love returned.
Two thoughts, here. The first: Hosea is being invited to love fearlessly, out in public, where people will no doubt think that this righteous prophet is making some unrighteous or even downright foolish choices.
People aren’t going to understand what Hosea is doing, and he’s not really going to be able to explain. All he’ll be able to say is: I’ve been called to faithful love, and so I am being faithful.
Second: Hosea is being invited, in his own experience, to understand something of what the love of God for the people of God is like.
We often use phrases like reckless love for this, but I’m not sure that reckless is the right modifier. Hosea has to be reckoning the cost, right? He doesn’t agree to the plan because he thinks it’s going to all work out fine.
Hosea knows this one’s going to hurt, and he does it anyway. That’s not reckless, but it might be brave. It’s like what Oscar Wilde wrote, in An Ideal Husband: “It takes a great deal of courage to see the world in all its tainted glory, and still to love it.”
The perspective of the writer then flips from Hosea to God, who is mourning the breakdown of God’s relationship with Israel. God says,
…she is not my wife, and I am not her husband;
And let her put away her harlotry from her face…
God threatens to strip her naked, to make her as dry and forsaken as a wilderness. God will reject her children as the products of harlotry. God will take away the securities and pleasures that she has been saying that she earned through harlotry; she doesn’t realize that all these were gifts from God to begin with.
No more feasts and sabbaths. No more wool and flax. No more grain and wine, and no more beautiful jewelry. God is going to drag her (and her, here means the people of God) into the wilderness and forcibly strip all of this away, in anger.
If you’re squirming, you’re hearing this correctly. This is an intentionally terrifying image of God’s judgment, portrayed as the betrayed and wounded rage one feels at a cheating partner, as the revenge that the spurned partner imagines reaping.
It’s not that God is gently and benignly upset when we worship other gods and treat one another poorly. It’s that God is raging, taking sharpies to the photo albums and breaking the champagne glasses from the wedding and screaming to his empty house about what he wants to do next.
The tone changes, then, as we get to the passage that Alice read for us:
Therefore, behold, I will allure her,
Bring her into the wilderness
And speak kindly to her.
“Then I will give her her vineyards from there,
And the valley of Achor as a door of hope.
And she will sing there as in the days of her youth,
As in the day when she came up from the land of Egypt.
I will allure her. I will speak kindly to her. There, she will sing as in the days of her youth.
Well, which is it? Are we being sweet-talked in the desert, or are we being stripped and deprived?
I think it has to be both, in part because that’s what the wilderness is. It’s stark, and starkly beautiful. The wilderness is a place that shakes you, a place where you can find yourself and where you might not be happy with what you find.
God is angry, and God is not hiding that anger – and let’s take a moment to consider that few of us would have the guts to write this way about God. God is profoundly emotional, in Hosea. God’s antonym would be the word detached.
In the breakdown of relationship, God is both condemning and alluring. God rages, and God seeks to win back affection. God envisions, as the end goal, that the people of God will know God as a husband who loves, rather than as a lord who punishes.
God is deeply in love, and refuses to accept anything less than real love in return. I’ll show you, God says, and we’re shown both rage and a deep-seated steadfastness. And while the desire to punish is strong, the desire to rebuild wins out.
The consequences of love restored between God and the people of God go well beyond the primary relationship. It’s love and belovedness for all of creation: an end to war in the world, and safety for all of the human and animal inhabitants of the world.
I will betroth you to Me forever, God says.
Yes, I will betroth you to Me in righteousness
and in justice,
In lovingkindness and in compassion,
And I will betroth you to Me in faithfulness.
Then you will know the Lord.
That’s the goal. We’re going to start over, and we’re going to get it right this time.
That’s the aspiration. I don’t want to let God’s aspirations drown out God’s anger, though… and anger really is the right word for it. Don’t pretty this up.
We don’t talk much about the wrath of God, but maybe we should. There are idolatries and injustices in this world that are worth getting mad about. You know those places of violence and depravity and unfaithfulness as well as I do. A God who didn’t get mad about them would hardly be a God who loved us.
God’s anger comes to a head in chapter 11, where God flips from complaining in marital terms and starts speaking as a father might about a wayward child:
When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
But the more they were called,
the more they went away from me.
They sacrificed to the Baals
and they burned incense to images.
It was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
taking them by the arms;
but they did not realize
it was I who healed them.
I led them with cords of human kindness,
with ties of love.
To them I was like one who lifts
a little child to the cheek,
and I bent down to feed them.
Will they not return to Egypt
and will not Assyria rule over them
because they refuse to repent?
A sword will flash in their cities;
it will devour their false prophets
and put an end to their plans.
My people are determined to turn from me.
Even though they call me God Most High,
I will by no means exalt them.
But then, the tone changes completely. Or, to quote from a piece that Colin Saxton wrote for Quaker Life:
Just when the last reserves of love seem nearly drained away, and fury is about to breach the heart of God, there is a pause in the narrative. We can’t know how long or short it lasts, but it shows up right between verses 7 and 8 of Hosea 11. In that quiet moment, God’s heart recoils. In the Hebrew, it is described as something like an earthquake that takes place inwardly rather than outwardly. Changed, God says:
“How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel?
How can I treat you like Admah? How can I make you like Zeboyim?
My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused.
I will not carry out my fierce anger, nor will I devastate Ephraim again.
For I am God, and not a man—the Holy One among you.”
On the verge of erupting in anger when his love is rejected, God stills himself—and bears the wound of love in his heart. Despite the pain and justifiable anger, loving compassion and mercy are shown to a people who are immensely hard to love. “And so I am not going to act on my anger… And why? Because I am God and not a human.”
God’s own heart is changed, by love.
It doesn’t mean that God is no longer angry. It doesn’t mean that the anger is unjustified. It’s just that, as Colin put it, “God reveals compassion as a greater means to transformation and restoration than outrage can ever be.”
We don’t do icons here, really: physical images of God that are designed to draw you into God’s presence by reminding you of some aspect of God. We don’t have Bible stories set in the windows or in paintings in the hallway.
Imagine with me, though, if we were creating our own line of icons. Imagine if you had a little square picture of God to look at when you prayed, and it depicted God as Hosea is describing: as a jilted lover wanting both revenge and reconciliation, as a terrified parent of a rebellious child who can’t bring himself to throw the child out.
How would that change your prayer life? Because if Hosea is right, then that’s who God is.
Love can be angry, and noisy, and blustery. Love isn’t necessarily a pretty thing. That may seem obvious, but I think it still needs to be said out loud. Most of us are well aware that the people we love the most are the people we’re most liable to want to slap upside the head.
I do hope we’ll refrain from the actual slapping, I hope we don’t lose the fire, though. Being serene in the face of injustice is not what love looks like. Love requires more of us than that, more wholeheartedness than that, more faithfulness than can fit in an always-calm exterior.
You are loved more you know, more than you will ever know, more than you are even capable of knowing… and that love is coming for you.
You are loved by One who held your hands as you learned to walk, who led you forward with the cords of human kindness, and those ties of love are not letting go.
If you’re hearing that with a wild threatening edge to it – love is coming and you will be loved – then you’re hearing the brokenhearted love of God as Hosea presents it.
To be in God’s presence, Friends, is to be in the presence of that kind of love.
At Eugene Peterson’s funeral, his son Leif said that his dad only ever preached one sermon. Eugene was a prolific preacher and writer, so this seems untrue on the surface.
He had spent twenty-nine years in pastoral ministry, but his son said he only had one thing to say every Sunday. Here it is:
God loves you.
God is on your side.
God is coming after you.
God is relentless.
That’s the heart of God that Hosea shows us. As we move into waiting worship, go with – and within – that fierce and unrelenting love.