Sermon by Keith, 11.10.19 Mark 10:13-14, Hosea 11:1-9
Either to their joy or consternation (I won’t know for sure which until after we get their bill for therapy) we have referenced our children in our sermons over the years. I think there was a disclaimer in the delivery room when they were born that said, “Welcome to the world, PK! Everything that you say and do from this moment on may be used as a sermon illustration.”
Which in some ways makes perfect sense. You are bound to see all aspects of the human condition–the good, the bad, and the ugly–come out in such close knit relationships, including between a husband and wife, parent and child, and between siblings. I can say that for the most part, what I have seen and experienced with them has been so joy-filled that when they say or do something that speaks to a scripture text I’m working on, I want to share it with you.
But yes, we have an almost teenager in the house. Things are changing. The dynamic of the relationship is changing. And that probably means you will also hear some different type of sermon illustrations. But no matter what the dynamic of the relationship I’m having with Lucas or Ben, or even with Laura for that matter, the constant will always be love.
And that is the point about God love that the prophet Hosea is trying to make. Now if you think that we use stories from our familial relationships in our sermons, especially of our kids, Hosea takes it to the next level. Early in his prophetic writing, his children become living sermons and the deep messages tied to their names are then used to teach us deeper lessons about God and God’s people.
In Hosea, you find the prophet marrying a prostitute and having children. And their names become important messages. His first son he names Jezreel to talk about the death, destruction, and murder that took place in the city of Jezreel. His next child he names Lo-ruhamah, which means “not shown pity” as the people feel that the love of God has left them. And the last child, a boy is given the glorious name of Lo-ammi, “Not my people” because of the separation and rejection God felt because of his people. Just think of what their playground experience had to be with names like that!
But Hosea, through poetic prophecy about these close familial relationships, teaches us that these names are not looking at the relationships from God’s perspective, but from our perspective. I feel like God has left me, I feel like I am no longer part of God’s people. These names are about Israel’s unfaithfulness, not God’s undying faithfulness.
The names change, or at least the understanding of the names change. The living sermon changes to a message of despair to a message of grace. Trouble to grace. Jezreel’s name doesn’t change, but instead of being a reference to a place of destruction, it changes to the literal meaning of that name, “God’s sows.” God will sow God’s own self in the land so that no one will miss his bountiful love and presence. Lo-ruhamah becomes Ruhamah, because the people will come to know God’s love and grace. And finally, Lo-ammi’s name is transformed to Ammi, because God’s claim on the people as his people has not been changed, but only reaffirmed and strengthened.
Outside of talking about the psychological damage this may do to his kids, this name game makes us ask the question of why would Hosea do this, make his children into living sermons? As we continue to read Hosea, I think we see why this is important for this prophet. Even in their rebellion and waywardness, Hosea wants to stress that the living God of Israel and Judah loves his people, loves us, more deeply than humanly love can be explained or expressed. But the closest he can come is relating it to the love of a parent who has loved relentlessly and fiercely a child who kept running away from his or her parent’s love. Hosea gets personal with the names of his children because he wants to stress that we have a relational, personal God.
And I love how Hosea shows that love in chapter 11, a piece of scripture that Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann says is “among the most remarkable oracles in the entire prophetic literature.” And biblical scholar , HD Beedy said, “In Hosea 11 we penetrate deeper into the heart and mind of God than anywhere in the Old Testament.” What Hosea has us do is pull ourselves up the kitchen table with God and a hot cup of coffee and go through the family photo album.
How many of you have a family photo album? They are fun to look at. Pictures of either when you were a child or pictures of your children. Maybe there are pictures of you in your highchair with spaghetti all over the place. Or a picture of your daughter playing with dolls. Your son on his first bike. The vacations and family gatherings. The birthdays and holidays. Now think about what might be in God’s photo album. For the people of Israel, there had to be a picture of them crossing the Red Sea. God shares the pictures of teaching them to walk, leading them with cord of kindness and bands of love. Can you picture the photograph that would go with these lines: “I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.” Wow!
What would be in God’s photo album of you? What about the church?
Sometimes we go back through the old photos because life has hit a rough spot, like maybe when a rebellious adolescent child has done something so horrible that we need a reminder of just how much we love that child. God in this story has hit a difficult time. And God is responding to Israel’s rejection. Israel ran away from God to pursue other gods. Some of the Israelites in fact went back to Egypt–the very place from which God brought them out of slavery. Even after God kept them alive during those years in the wilderness; it was God who gave them a beautiful land to call their own, but they mistreated it all, abused their land and its people, ultimately discarding their relationship with God. God lamented, “You want to go back to the place that nearly destroyed you? Fine, go! I’m done this time. You are on your own from now on!”
Not too unfamiliar behavior for a parent of an unruly child. My parent’s closest words to this were, “if you choose to go out partying with your friends, when you get arrested for doing something stupid, don’t call me until the morning.”
But then we see God’s internal anguish and self dialogue. It appears that God cannot even escape the pain that people can inflict on someone they love. And there is a dramatic twist in the plot of the story, a twist that would have shocked the people who heard these words. God’s heart recoils within God’s own being.
The word we translate “recoil” is the same word used in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah to describe how God overthrew those cities. In Hosea’s words, God overthrows God’s own heart. Instead of punishing the child, God takes the punishment upon himself. The consequences of the child’s painful actions are taken into the heart of God.
And God’s tender compassion is rekindled. They are God’s children after all. They didn’t ask to be chosen by God. God has different eyes to see them. God holds their yesterdays in pictures no one else remembers: waiting for them to be born, the moments of their childhood, first steps, first words, smiles and cries, and all the big thresholds of their journey–in wilderness, in the promised land. In life and in death, they belong to God as God’s children.
I share a story, not of our kids, but what may be looked at as the infancy of our time as your pastors. It had to have been within the first month that we were here that one of the members of this church walked up to me after a Sunday worship and said, “You are this church’s last hope.”
Well, needless to say, that freaked out this fresh out of seminary new pastor. I got over pretty quickly the weight of that statement because I realized that at some point or another, I would mess up things up. Thank goodness you are a forgiving people! But most importantly I came to see that this church knows that its hope isn’t in the pastors, the programs, or the music played on Sunday, but our only hope is on God in Christ and in his fierce love and compassion that goes beyond our human comprehension.
That love was made most visible when God bent low and became one of us in Jesus Christ, entering the fray of humankind. God went to the depths of anguish, like a lion roaring out from the cross, giving voice to a painful love for all humanity.
And in his resurrection, Jesus calls us to be living sermons with and for him, because we take on a new name, Children of God, lifted high in the arms of God’s grace and love as a new family. And it is there we find we are connected to one another, our unknown neighbors, and all of creation to share that message of love, invite others into God’s family, work for justice, and glorify the One whose love we cannot escape. Because it is a love that calls us back home to God’s fierce, loving embrace. Amen.