Monday, January 16, 2017


Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Hosea 1:1, 2:14-23:

This past Monday, on January 9, happens to be the day on which more people commit marital infidelity than any other day of the year. I don’t know how they figured that out, but it was what I heard this past week, and I thought it was rather appropriate for today because what Hosea, the first of the 12 Minor Prophets that we encounter, deals with is infidelity, the breaking of relationship, and in particular the breaking of covenantal relationships. Of course, when we think of breaking of vows, it is the breaking of marriage vows that tends to come first.  But there are lots of other vows, sometimes merely implied, that we can also break, which can lead us to break relationship. Several years ago, I showed a video of from the Jimmy Kimmel show where he asked parents to give their kids terrible Christmas presents, but this week I came across a similar video in which he asked parents to tell their children that they had eaten all of their children’s Halloween candy. Take a look…  I am pretty sure that Jimmy Kimmel is going to hell for that, and perhaps I am for showing it, and you for laughing. But that breaking of relationship between these parents and their children, and the responses the children have, I believe are appropriate for the message we see in the prophet Hosea.

We know very little about Hosea. We are told in that opening passage of the book that he is the son of Beeri, a typical introduction in prophetic writings, about whom we know nothing, and then the kings who were ruling in Israel and in Judah.  His prophetic career lasts from the year 750 to 724 BCE, which is a fairly tumultuous time for Israel, or the northern Kingdom. And as a reminder, after the death of King Solomon, the united monarchy, as it is called, is divided into two kingdoms. The northern kingdom, known as Israel, and the southern kingdom, known as Judah. The northern kingdom is larger and contains 10 of the tribes of Israel, while Judah is smaller and contains 2 tribes but also contains Jerusalem. While there are several prophets who make prophecies about and for the northern kingdom, Hosea is the only prophet that we know of who is from the northern kingdom, not from Judah. Outside of the book of Job, Hosea is the hardest book for Biblical translators. Not only is the text obscure and difficult in the Hebrew, the Greek version of the Old Testament, known as the Septuagint, is also difficult. Since it is then believed that the difficulty of the text comes not from mistakes in transmission through the millennia, they believe that what we have in the book of Hosea is evidence of a different dialect in ancient Hebrew. I think that’s totally cool  because that means there were much larger divides between Israel and Judah than we might otherwise not be aware of besides for a political boundary. I think that’s totally cool. It’s like George Bernard Shaw’s quote that Britain and America are a people “divided by a common language.”

The book of Hosea is broken up into three sections. The first three chapters talk about Hosea’s marriage to Gomer, which is used as a metaphor of God’s relationship with Israel. The second section is chapters 4-11 is a series of oracles of judgment against Israel with a metaphor of God as a parent and Israel as a rebellious child, and the closing section is chapters 12-14, which uses both metaphors and talks about the coming destruction of Israel. Each of these sections includes not only the proclamation of judgment and punishment and destruction, but it also offers a message of hope to the people of Israel through a message about God’s love and forgiveness which comes with repentance. While there are lots of different issues that Hosea tackles, ways in which the people have gone astray, including growing economic problems, the biggest being growing inequality between the rich and the poor, Hosea’s biggest prophetic witness surrounds political and religious idolatry. The ways in which Israel has been unfaithful to God and broken the covenantal vows that they have taken, which is where the metaphor of marriage plays such a critical role in the prophecy.

So far as we can tell, Hosea is the first person to make the metaphor of God being the groom with Israel as God’s bride. To represent this metaphor as a reality, Hosea is ordered by God to marry a woman who is known to be unfaithful, this is one of the times in which a prophet acts out his prophetic witness. While in the NRSV translation, which we use, it says to marry a wife of whoredom, and other translations use prostitution, the Hebrew word here doesn’t imply someone professionally involved in these trades, to be gentle, but simply someone that we might say is promiscuous. You might think that Hosea would object to this command, but if he does, it is not recorded here, instead he simply does what God tells him to do. Hosea and Gomer have three children, although we are only told that one of them is Hosea’s child, perhaps implying that the others are born from an adulterous relationship. God tells Hosea which he should name each of these children. The first son was named Jezreel, which is a valley in Israel where God says he will destroy the house of Jehu. The second child is a daughter, who Hosea is told to name Lo-ruhamah, which means “have no pity,” for God will have no pity on Israel nor forgive them, and the third child, a son, is named Lo-Ammi, which means “not my people,” which is a rebuke of a passage we have several times in scripture where God says “You are my people and I am your God.”

This is a total rebuke and rejection of Israel; a breaking of the covenant. But, Hosea is saying, the covenant is not being broken by God, it is not being abandoned by God, it is being abandoned and broken by the Israelites. They are the ones who have broken fidelity, they are the ones who have worshipped other gods, in this case Baal, they are the ones who have put their trust in their military leaders, and their political leaders, and their religious leaders, and in their own wealth and possessions and have said “these are the things that will save us,” rather than being their trust and allegiance with God.

Now we often have this image of God being unmoved, after all we say he is the same yesterday, today and forever, and yet the image we see of God in Hosea, in many of the prophets, is one that is affected by what we do and what happens to us. God expresses the anger and jealousy, the anguish and grief, that come in a broken relationship. God’s like that little boy whose candy has been taken saying “I don’t want to look at you,” or the little girl saying “I’m going to smack your butt and put you into your room in a timeout.” God’s hurt by the behaviors that are happening, and we are told that the people are going astray because they don’t know God. The verb of knowing here is not one of knowledge, but one of intimacy. God is saying “we entered into this covenant, just like a marriage is a covenant, and I was faithful, but you were not. You broke the relationship, you violated the trust we had established, like taking candy, you destroyed the intimacy, and it hurts so badly because of that intimacy and now it lays in tatters.” I think most of us have been in that situation. We have been in the place of the victim, the place of the person who was wronged, a place where the trust and intimacy we had with another person was broken and shattered. And how did we want to respond? With tears? With grief? With anger? Yes, yes and yes. And so does God.

God makes the accusation of adultery against Israel, and in some particularly harsh language, especially in chapter 2, God lays out a punishment for Israel, as the adulterous woman, that at the very least is shaming, of being publicly stripped naked, and at the worst is abuse leading to death. These passages have been used throughout the years to justify and support spousal abuse, of giving the man the right to beat his wife, and giving churches the excuse to support not only that action, but also to tell wives that they needed to stay in such situations and explore what they had done wrong, how they were responsible for what had happened, because after all, just like Israel, they must be responsible. So first, domestic abuse is not acceptable, violence against intimate partners, really violence against anyone else, is not acceptable. And to see this as supported by scripture is a misuse and abuse of the very words that people claim to be upholding. I feel I can say that for many reasons.

The first is that our understanding of marriage and the relations of genders, and of what a healthy, wholesome relationship is, have changed fundamentally and radically since the time of Hosea. When Hosea is talking about marriage is looks nothing like the understanding of marriage that we have today, so don’t like at them as if they are the same. And secondly, we have to understand that this is a metaphor. Metaphors are not to be taken literally. When Shakespeare says “all the world’s a stage” does it mean literally that it’s a stage? No, but it says something about human behaviors that we can understand. If we take it literally, it destroys the metaphor. We have to see the metaphor of God and Israel in the same way. It is a metaphor to take us to a deeper understanding of the relationship between God and the nation, and God and the people.

That is where this, then, applies to us. Adlai Stevenson, one-time presidential candidate, said “some of us worship in churches, some worship in synagogues, some worship on golf courses.” There are lots of different altars where we worship, lots of things that can become our gods. We all have things that pull at our allegiance, we all have things that distract us, we all have things that claim our passion and may take priority in our lives. In a new book on this very issue, entitled The Altars Where We Worship, the authors highlight six areas in American culture that have become our gods and our religions, namely, the body and sex, big business, entertainment, politics, sports and science and technology. These are the places, they say, where people gather to give meaning to their lives. We follow our sports team and dedicate more thought and passion to it than anything else in their lives. We worship at the altar of big business or capitalism or money. We believe that a politician will save us and redeem us. We give credit for the things in our lives as coming all from our own hard-work, and we spend much more time binge watching anything, then seeking to be in relationship with God, of seeking to know God. The issues that Hosea raises may have been unique in some ways to Israel, but in other ways they are universal, and we are all guilty.

In just four weeks I will again be worshiping at the altar of baseball, and lest you think you are immune to this issue, this morning we heard Jesus’ call of Levi to be a disciple, in which he simply gets up and follows, leaving behind everything he was doing. If God were to call to you today and say “follow me” would we drop everything, just as Levi did, or just like the other disciples did, or would we have excuses about why we couldn’t go? Those excuses could be the gods in our life.  It’s okay to have other passions, other desires, other interests, but what God says is you shall not have any other gods before me.  And Jesus said that we cannot serve two masters, because one will always take priority, and so we have to choose. Are we going to follow God and worship God and pledge our allegiance to God? Or are we going to following and worship and pledge our allegiance to something else? We cannot do both. And so we have to answer where do we find meaning? Where do we find purpose? Where do we put our trust? Where do we put our allegiance? Where do we express and find our ultimate concerns?

Hosea is not calling the people, not calling us, to recapture some old-time religion. Hosea is not a religious traditionalist, Hosea is a religious radical, a religious innovator calling the people to a true monotheism, to say that what is primary is to love the Lord our God with all of our hearts, and all of our souls and all of our strength and all of our mind, with all that we are and all that we have. Not just with part of it, but all of it, and to know that when we go astray, when we commit idolatry, which is worshiping something or someone other than God, that it pains God because it breaks the intimacy of the relationship which God has called for each of us, for our church, for our nation and for our world. In many ways our understanding of marriage now is an even better metaphor for our relationship with God because it represents both symbolically and physically the relationship and intimacy between two individuals who consciously choose each other out of many possible partners. So where we have broken that relationship we need to repent, we need to turn around, and to say that it is in God that we find meaning and purpose and our ultimate concern, and that anything else, whether in the past or the future, which seeks to claim that allegiance for us, that seeks to give us some other greater meaning for our lives, needs to be put aside for it is idolatry.

But then comes a message of forgiveness and hope, which we also see in the story of the children and their candy….  Although ultimately destruction comes to Israel, three times in Hosea, God offers a message of hope, of peace of restoration, the first coming in chapter 2 that we heard this morning. God’s love and grace will have the final word.  The covenant will be renewed, a covenant not just with the people, but with all of creation, which should remind us that our broken relationships hurt not just us and other humans, but they can hurt the entire planet, and that God will abolish war, putting our trust in our military might to save us, and God will restore justice, and the bounty will come to the earth, and to the valley of Jezreel, and to the son of the same name, and rather than for Lo-Ruhamah, the daughter whose name is without pity, God will instead have pity for the people, and God will say to Lo-Ammi, whose name is not my people, God will say “You are my people” and Lo-Ammi will say “and you are my God.” The names of Hosea’s children, which were names for judgment, have been changed to images of renewal and hope.

As we think of fulfilled prophecies, we as Christians see this word of Hosea as being begun in the person of Jesus the Christ, and yet it is still not fulfilled because we still have war, we still have brokenness in the creation, we still put our trust and allegiance in business and movie stars and politicians rather than with God, and yet the promise is there. The call to repent, the call to come to know God, not just with our heads, not just as a mental acknowledgement, but to know God with our hearts, in the intimacy of our lives, and to praise and give glory to God with all that we are and with all that we do, and that when God says to us, “You are my people,” we can say in return “and you are my God.” I pray that it will be so my brothers and sisters. Amen.

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