“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…
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…”
-from Hosea 11
In the beginning, there was Love. In the beginning, before there were lights or sounds or anything other than a wind on the waters, Love spoke the world into being. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
And then there was light, and skies, and seas, and plants, and the moon and the stars, and mammals, and birds.
And then, in the beginning, Love’s hands fashioned the first people from dust and wind.
But, in the beginning, we did not understand this Love. We did not understand that Love was what brought all this beauty into being. We did not understand that Love is among us as a blessing.
And so this becomes our origin story, because we will always mess up and refuse to trust, will we not? Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Adam and Eve sin. Adam blames Eve, Eve blames the serpent. This is all of us. We point our fingers, hoping that blaming another will relieve the burden of guilt that we bear.
*Surprise!* It doesn’t work. We’re cast out of the garden, left in exile, with Abel’s innocent blood crying out from the ground.
The thing to remember, though, when everything seems lost, is that this is still a love story.
God still longs to be in fellowship, even when humans turn away. God longs to walk with us in the garden again, face to face, and everything Scripture records God doing is part of that effort. Even the law itself, which we so often see as a set of rules to be followed or broken or ignored, was just one more way to help us see how to love God and each other.
The Bible uses many deep and intimate and sometimes difficult metaphors to describe the love that God has for us. Sometimes, it’s iconic phrases like you are the apple of my eye or I have carved you in the palm of my hand. Sometimes, it’s a mother hen longing to gather her chicks under her wings to keep them safe.
In the book of Hosea, the story begins from the perspective of a jilted and grieving lover. The word of the Lord that came to Hosea son of Beeri: “Go, take to yourself an adulterous wife and children of unfaithfulness, because the land is guilty of the vilest adultery in departing from the Lord.” God sets Hosea up to get cheated on, as a way of illustrating Israel’s unfaithfulness in relational terms.
Ok, so you remember where we are in the story of the Bible, right? The glorious kingdom of David and Solomon has split in two. We have Israel, the breakaway Northern tribes, and Judah, the smaller country where Jerusalem is at. Hosea is a prophet in the Northern Kingdom of Israel.
When the Northern Kingdom broke away, they were faced with a problem. Their religious law mandated that they travel to Jerusalem multiple times per year to make sacrifices at the temple of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But how was this new kingdom to set up an independent identity, with the seat of religious power located over the border? And was Judah even going to let them back to worship?
Israel’s new rebel King, Jeroboam, solved that problem elegantly, by constructing a couple golden calves at the cities of Dan and Beersheba so that his people could worship there instead. Which was a great solution, since it’s not like God ever had anything negative to say about idol worship…
Actually, no, wait, God has a lot to say about disliking idolatry! It’s definitely one of the divine least favorites.
This is probably a good place to stop and remember that while we may not actually be slaughtering animals in front of golden statues, we’re every bit as prone to idolatry as the Israelites were. Idolatry has very little to do with a golden statue and very much to do with the orientations of our own hearts.
Idolatry is that catch that makes the difference between the wholehearted Here I Am, Lord and something a little less than that. If you were a weathervane and the wind spun you toward the thing you value the most, would you point like an arrow toward your Creator? Or would you quiver between a few other options?
I don’t ask you that to single you out or to make you feel badly. Idolatry slithers through the chambers of all our hearts, from Adam and Eve on down. Anyone who watches death after death tally up on the news knows this. Anyone who has paid attention to the dark corners of their own heart knows this.
That isn’t the point of the book of Hosea, though. You didn’t need someone else to tell you that God calls us to faithfulness, that God wants better for us than a life spent quivering between priorities that shouldn’t be our ultimate concern. That truth is present, here, but Hosea is pointing us toward something deeper.
So, Hosea marries Gomer. Predictably, she births three children of uncertain paternity and then leaves him. This drama is carried out, poetically, as a metaphor for Israel’s unfaithfulness in worshipping strange gods and treating one another without love and justice, which the Bible inextricably links.
God reacts to both Gomer and Israel’s unfaithfulness simultaneously, angrily, with a series of threats: I will block her path with thornbushes, I will wall her in so that she cannot find her way… I will ruin her vines and her fig trees…I will punish her for the days she burned incense to the Baals…
I think a lot of us are familiar with this angry image of God, raging at sin. He’s pretty popular. He’s got a good PR team. So, when I read these passages where God is mad I might wince, but I’m not surprised.
What surprises me still, though, is the rest of the story.
So, the first chapter of Hosea was narrative- the marriage of Hosea and Gomer, and their kids being born. Those quotes about thornbushes and incense burning are all from the first part of chapter 2 of Hosea, in which God first gets to vent about how terribly things are going with Israel.
Here’s the thing, though: God can’t even make it through that one chapter without ditching the condemnation and offering restoration instead. Changing tack entirely, God says:
Therefore I am now going to allure her; I will lead her into the desert and speak tenderly to her… There she will sing as in the days of her youth, as in the day she came up out of Egypt…
Then God, unsatisfied with even that offer, switches to addressing Israel in the first person: I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion.
God imagines this reconciliation as one with cosmic consequences. On the day in which God and God’s beloved are reunited in love, a covenant will be made with the beasts of the field and the birds of the air and the creatures that move along the ground. God promises that Bow and sword and battle I will abolish from the land, so that all may lie down in safety.
That’s going to be quite the vow renewal service.
With that image in mind, this hopelessly romantic God sends Hosea off to show love to his wife, to do whatever it’s going to take to get his wife back. Hosea ends up buying her out of slavery at a steep price. Having done so, Hosea both requires Gomer to be faithful and assures her that he isn’t going anywhere, that her behavior hasn’t caused his own commitment to falter.
That’s what the book of Hosea is about. It’s fourteen chapters long, and it tells this story three times:
- God is so angry about human sin, over our willingness to worship lesser things and take advantage of each other.
- Then the levee breaks, and we see instead the broken heart of God, grieving for us.
- And then, beyond that, we see the way back home. God’s broken open heart becomes the door through which we walk back into fellowship.
Look at it, Friends, in this morning’s passage. This is God, mournfully, flipping back through the baby book and remembering all the good times:
I was the one who taught him to walk!
Her pudgy little arms were held gently in my fingers, as I pulled her upright.
I lifted him up and snuggled him, my cheek next to his.
She was hungry, and I bent down to feed her.
God has threatened punishment, but then finds it impossible to follow through. How can I give you up? How can I hand you over?
My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused. I will not carry out my fierce anger, not because Israel doesn’t deserve it, but because I am God, and not man- the Holy One among you. I will not come in wrath.
I will not come in wrath. Every once in a while, preparing for a sermon, I run across a verse that just seems to sum up the whole Gospel. This is one of those times. I will not come in wrath.
Do we believe this? Did Gomer?
Think about Gomer, though, for real. Think about the names that a woman in her situation would be called. Think about what people would have said about her behind her back. Think about what people were probably willing to say to her face.
I’m going to keep this sermon PG, here, but you know the words. Think about how they would flush across her face, when she saw Hosea coming. How could she believe that Hosea wasn’t coming in wrath?
This isn’t a sermon about Gomer, though. It’s about us. So just for a moment, think about the names you have been called. [pause] There isn’t a person alive who doesn’t know what shame feels like.
This is the message of Hosea, though, the Gospel for this morning: we are all invited to come home. No matter what we’ve been called. No matter what we’ve done.
So, think the worst thing that’s ever been said about you, or that you’ve ever said about yourself.
And then remember: you are loved. God doesn’t see a failure, looking at you. God looks at you and thinks, “she didn’t even know that I was the one healing her.” God looks at you and remembers the moments in which you were learning to walk by faith. God looks at you and remembers bending down to make sure you were fed.
God looks at you and sees the Beloved. Don’t ever forget that about yourself.
Got that? Ok, then let’s make it one step harder and one step more freeing.
God looks at you and sees the Beloved. Don’t ever forget that about yourself. Also, don’t ever forget it about your neighbor.
This is a hard thing to say to anyone who has ever borne the brunt of another person’s sin, which is all of us. I think it’s a particularly hard thing to say when our television screens are full of images unjustly targeted in terrorist attacks.
The fact that it’s hard to say, though, doesn’t stop it from being the most true thing in the universe. Love is the only weapon that Christ gives us. Since we believe that Christ will reign victorious, then we must also believe that love, in the end, is enough.
You are Beloved. There is nothing you can ever do that will make you unwelcome at God’s table. There is nothing for which you cannot be forgiven. There is no intentional sin or unintentional failure that can separate you from the love of God.
But the grace that is true for you is not only true for you. It’s also true for that cousin that you can’t get along with, and that person who hurt you so badly, and that jerk from the church you used to go to, and those bad people across the ocean, and the woman ahead of you at Kroger who is SO SLOW.
You don’t have to feel lovey-dovey toward them. You just have to understand that they’re invited to God’s table of fellowship. You don’t have to invite them into your own dining room, just yet. Maybe you’ll get there.
What you have to know for right now, though, is that God looks at each and every one of us with a broken open heart that invites us in. Look: this is the lesson that Hosea had to learn, when he was called to be a prophet of the God of Love. He had to stretch his heart wide enough to let Gomer back in- and you know it must have broken a few times in the process.
I think that we have to learn that lesson too. So Friends, may we be people who remember that our God comes not in wrath, but in compassion. May we be people who open our hearts wide to that love, even when it hurts.
And as our hearts open, may our arms open too. May we be a community that doesn’t forget our high calling, when we’re dealing with one another, when we’re playing our roles at work and school and play, or when we’re watching the news.
And may the God who leads each of us with cords of human kindness give us the courage and the strength to respond, in the face of human brokenness, with brokenhearted love.
“Come, come, whoever you are.
Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving.
It doesn’t matter. Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times.
Come, yet again , come , come.” ― Rumi