July 25, 2010

Hosea 1:2-10

As we move through these summer Sundays, each week we encounter a Hebrew prophet. What the prophets usually do is they act as spokespersons, filled with the Spirit to proclaim God’s word to the people. Operating out of an urgent sense of compulsion, they announce the Lord’s will upon the nation and exhort the people to repent of their sinful ways. They broadcast this message in the Temple, in the marketplaces, in the streets and squares – wherever they can get a hearing. The Hebrew Bible is filled with their eloquent words, denouncing a people, predicting that foreign nations will vanquish them, calling the people to repentance, and describing in vivid detail the Lord’s restoration.

The first chapter of Hosea, which we heard this morning, puts forward another image of a prophet. Hosea is not a spokesperson here. He doesn’t say a word. Instead of proclaiming a message from God through speech, Hosea performs a significant action. God instructs him, and Hosea obeys the instruction, to get married to a prostitute. It’s a crazy and shocking thing to do, just to make a point, but Hosea does it.

The idea is that Hosea’s marriage to a whore is a symbolic representation of God’s marriage to the people of Israel. God and Israel as groom and bride is a metaphor that is used frequently in scripture to describe the covenant relationship between God and God’s people.

Both God and the people have made promises to live together in love and faithfulness all the days of their lives. And God has been faithful, while the people have been about as unfaithful as a whore – they have turned away to worship other gods, and they have done all kinds of evil things for money and comfort.

Hosea’s sing-act of marrying a prostitute embodies the sin of the people in a way that no spoken word can. His whole life comes to represent the message that he is bringing from God. Namely, “O you people! I have been faithful to you! And you have been just about as unfaithful as anyone could possibly be!”

But Hosea’s sign-act doesn’t stop with the marriage itself. In time, the couple have three children – a boy, a girl, and another boy. And each child comes to represent God’s anger and threat of punishment against the people of Israel.

The first child is Jezreel, named after the place where one group of Israelites massacred another. The child’s name is a reminder that God is not happy about that, and will put an end to the house of Israel.

The second child’s name is Lo-ruhamah, meaning “she who is not pitied.” God says he will no longer have pity on the house of Israel and forgive them. God’s patience has run out.

Finally, Hosea and Gomer have a third child, and they are told to name him Lo-Ammi. Lo-Ammi means “not my people.” In other words, the covenant relationship seems to be coming to an end.

Hosea’s marriage to an unfaithful wife and their children Jezreel, “she who is not pitied,” and “not my people,” illustrate the utter breakdown in the relationship between God and God’s people.

One of the things that I remember noticing the very first time I encountered this story was that God told Hosea to take for himself “a wife of whoredom.” In other words, Hosea knew from day one that she was a prostitute – that she wasn’t going to be faithful to him.

It would be different if Hosea had been told to marry a lovely young woman who was upright and good, and then she suddenly started sleeping around and whoring on the side. Hosea knew what he was getting into before he ever married Gomer.

And I think the same must be true of God and God’s relationship with the people of Israel – and eventually with us. God must have known, as he made covenants and promises with the people that they would not live up to them as well as God would. God knew what he was getting into when he married himself to Israel. God knew what he was getting into when he married himself to us.

I’m reminded of the many times that I have worked through a marriage preparation course with couples that I’m going to marry. The program I use begins with each partner filling out a survey about their relationship. Their answers are analyzed by a computer program, identifying strength and growth areas in their relationship, and highlighting issues around which exploration or discussion might be helpful.

One of the things the survey helps identify is where one or both partners have unrealistic expectations. You know, things like a wife-to-be who indicates that her partner has never lifted a finger to help with the housework, but then goes on to say that she expects they will share the household chores equally after they get married. Or perhaps a husband-to-be who strongly agrees with the statement, “We have lots of problems now, but things will improve once we get married.”

It doesn’t take an experienced marriage counsellor to know that a couple with those kinds of expectations is headed for trouble. It’s not that people don’t have the capacity to make changes for the better. But if you get married to someone on the assumption that they will improve themselves once you’re married, you’re likely to end up with a lot of conflict, frustration, and disappointment.

A quick read through the first chapter of Hosea kind of made me think that God had made that basic error with the people of Israel. Like a woman who gets married to a man who has never demonstrated his faithfulness – but has constantly strayed to other women – God seems to have married himself to a people who have never shown themselves to be committed to worshipping or obeying the One true God of Israel.

It seems that God’s expectations were unrealistic, and now God is angry, and frustrated, and ready to break off the relationship altogether. “The third child will be named Lo-Ammi,” God instructs, “for you are not my people and I am not your God.”

But if you read the text a little more carefully, you’ll start to notice these hints that God might have a change of heart. In verse 4, God is talking about punishing the house of Jehu and putting an end to the house of Israel because of the way the Israelites have been in-fighting and killing each other.

But then in verse 5, God concludes the issue by saying that he will “break the bow” of Israel. In other words, God will MAKE them stop fighting. God will enforce the peace. That doesn’t sound so bad.

Then, right after God names Gomer’s second child “Lo-ruhamah,” meaning “she who is not pitied” in verse 6, the next verse continues with God announcing that he will, indeed, have pity on the house of Judah and save them.

Finally, God declares with the name of the third child that “you are not my people,” but then goes on in verse 10 to say that “the number of the people of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea… and in the place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ it shall be said to them, ‘Children of the living God.’”

These reversals are confusing. It’s almost like God can’t decide whether to be angry and punish the people, or to be forgiving and give them another chance. What I learned as I started to do some reading and research to sort it out was that there’s a good chance that there are two layers of tradition in this text.

The original – the angry God who is frustrated with the unfaithful people – comes from the prophet Hosea in the mid-8th century BCE and is directed at the Northern Kingdom of Israel. The message is harsh and punishing for a people who have abandoned God to worship money, power, and military might, as well as various fertility gods as well.

But the verses with the sudden reversals (v. 5, 7, 10) were likely added later when the text was being shared with the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Preserved and circulated after the fall of Israel, Hosea’s story is re-interpreted for a new situation. By the mid-6th century BCE, the Southern Kingdom is in exile in Babylon, having experienced the traumas of war, and now needs a message of hope.

And so an editor in that time – a prophet for a new generation – takes the punishments embodied in the names of Hosea’s children and reverses them. God will not completely annihilate the people. Instead, God will eliminate any vestiges of war and bring about a new peace. God will pour out compassion upon the inhabitants of Judah, stressing again that their salvation does not lie in warfare. Finally, God will renew the covenant that was annulled by their infidelity. They will become children of the living God once again.

A few hundred years after Hosea used his own life and family to demonstrate God’s frustration and anger with the people’s unfaithfulness to God, another prophet used the same story to proclaim God’s amazing capacity to forgive the people and draw them back into a faithful covenant relationship.

Today, we are called to interpret the text again for our time and for our situation. What message is Hosea’s shocking sign-act proclaiming today for us as followers of Jesus in the 21st century CE?

I cannot help but think that there is good news in the idea that God has married himself to us, despite being fully aware of our shortcomings. God reached out to us in Jesus Christ and drew us into relationship with him even though we had not demonstrated our faithfulness to God.

God doesn’t go looking for perfect people, and then invite only them to be children of God and followers of Christ. No, God welcomes us all – whatever our problems, our insecurities, our secret shames, or our obvious definciencies. The story of Hosea and Gomer tells us that, as much as the Gospels’ accounts of the rag-tag bunch of fishermen, tax collectors, and other assorted sinners that Jesus hung around with during his ministry.

But there’s more in this story than a simple message of God’s wide acceptance and love for us just as we are. We’ve ignored Hosea’s original point if we gloss over God’s frustration and anger at a covenant that is being constantly broken, at a people who are turning away to worship other gods and to destroy each other in conflict and war.

The fact is that we have been called, and at one time or another many of us have accepted the invitation, to make God the primary relationship in our lives. We promised to put God first in all things, to do our best to obey God’s rules and to follow the loving, serving, self-giving way of Jesus.

As much as we have turned away from that relationship by giving our time and attention more and more to acquiring things and money and success and prestige, God is grieved. As much as we have claimed to be God’s children, while continuing to engage in conflict, complaining against and criticizing our sisters and brothers, God is not pleased with us.

While God instructs us to refrain from judging our neighbours, Jesus makes it clear that as his followers, we are held to a high standard. Jesus says, “Be perfect therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Yes, God does seem to have entered into relationship with us with some impossibly high expectations – unrealistic expectations, we might even say. But God is not the kind of spouse who entered the marriage mistakenly assuming that their partner would be perfect all the time. God knows our weakness. God knows our struggles. Even when we turn away, God remains faithful. And so a relationship in which we are not living as God’s people, can be turned around into one where we are again known as children of the living God.

As Jesus invites us to the table of bread and wine, to enjoy communion with him, let us approach… confessing our sins, trusting in God’s grace, committing ourselves to relationship with God, and celebrating the abundance of God’s faithful love towards us. Amen.