With Bands of Love

Hosea 11:1-11

1 When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. 2 The more I called them, the further they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and they burned incense to idols. 3 Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk; I took them up in my arms, but they did not know that I healed them. 4 I led them with bands of human kindness, with cords of love. I treated them like those who lift infants to their cheeks; I bent down to them and fed them.

5 They will return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria will be their king, because they have refused to return to me. 6 The sword will strike wildly in their cities; it will consume the bars of their gates and will take everything because of their schemes. 7 My people are bent on turning away from me; and though they cry out to the Most High, he will not raise them up.

8 How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart winces within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.

9 I won’t act on the heat of my anger; I won’t return to destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not a human being, the holy one in your midst; I won’t come in harsh judgment. 10 They will walk after the LORD, who roars like a lion. When he roars, his children will come trembling from the west. 11 They will come trembling like a bird, and like a dove from the land of Assyria; and I will return them to their homes, says the LORD.  (CEB)

With Bands of Love

Throughout Christian history there have been those who tried to characterize the God of the Old Testament as a wrathful and vengeful God, and the God of the New Testament as a loving, caring, self-sacrificing God. In the 2nd century, there was even a guy named Marcion who taught that the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament were two different Gods. As a result, he rejected all the books that were later canonized as the Old Testament. Marcion was one of the first notable heretics of the Christian faith. While the Marcionite Church died out by the late 5th century, some of Marcion’s basic ideas persist even today.

People sometimes have difficulty reconciling the God of the Old Testament with the God of the New Testament. Some people like the New Testament better than the Old Testament. Some people even believe that the Old Testament is concerned primarily with judgment, while the New Testament is concerned primarily with grace. The Old Testament is often held as less important than the New Testament. I own a book that includes only the New Testament and the Psalms, and I joke that it’s my Marcionite Bible. (I hesitate to call it a Bible because it dumps everything but the Psalms) .

Even the lectionary, which I really love, drops the Old Testament completely throughout the 50 days of the Easter season. It really throws off my attempt to give equal time to the Old and New Testaments in my preaching. For the record, as of this sermon the count stands at 23 Old Testament sermons, and 27 New Testament sermons in my time here at First UMC. (So those of you who prefer the New Testament are winning).

Those who are under the illusion that the Old Testament is less important, or that it’s only about judgment, might have their minds changed after reading Hosea 11. It’s been said before, and I believe this as well, that the Old Testament contains everything in the New, and the New Testament reveals everything in the Old.

What we’re shown in Hosea 11 is the most vivid portrayal in the Scriptures of the agony of God who is torn between the demands of judgment and the desire to show mercy. Hosea gives us the familiar images of a parent and child, and these images are used to show us the deep and immeasurable love of God. Yet, God’s love is continually spurned and rejected by a sinful people. So God struggles with judgment and mercy, and this struggle seems to cause God anguish.

The first four verses speak of God as a parent who has lovingly cared for a child. Hosea describes the helplessness of the child who could do nothing on his own. If God had not nurtured and loved it, Israel would not even have survived. And the tragic irony is that, “The more I called them, the more they went from me.” (NRSV).

Hosea describes for us the tenderness of God in a way that is almost unmatched in the Bible. Any parent who has raised an infant can relate closely to what’s being said. Anyone can feel empathy for the parental love God demonstrates in these lines: a parent’s pride and excitement at a child’s first steps, the love and joy of picking one’s child up and holding her close, the kind-hearted and loving parental guidance given throughout the child’s life. At the same time, we can empathize with God’s deep sadness when Hosea exclaims, “but they did not know that I healed them.” (NRSV).

While mothers and fathers alike are able to give such nurturing love and care to their children, Hosea seems to have in mind motherly affection when he describes God by saying, “I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to feed them.” (NRSV). God is like a mother in her tender devotion to her child.

Then comes the difficult realization by every parent that, as much as we would like to think to the contrary, our children are not perfect. My campus pastor used to say that anyone who doesn’t believe in Original Sin obviously doesn’t have children. Our kids don’t hang on our every word. In fact, it sometimes appears that they ignore a good many more of our words than they choose to obey. As they grow and push our patience to the edge of the envelope while they assert their independence, they end up doing some really stupid things.

Even after you try to explain to them that you’re only telling them this for their own good—even for their own safely—they so often choose to ignore our words. If my mom had known about it when we were kids, she probably would have told us NOT to shoot each other with BB guns, or throw bottle rocket grenades at each other, or make chemical bombs, or burn a tree down by stuffing it full of paint cans, or…well, how about I stop there.

Before Charlotte was born, I told my son a thousand times not to hang over the safety bar on the top bunk of the bunk beds, but he would do it anyway…and he fell on his head. The result was that he vomited a lot through the night and he had to be taken to the Emergency Room in the wee hours of the morning.

Apparently that first lesson didn’t take because he did it again a few months later. Now he’s not in a bunk bed. I tell my daughter to not run in the house, but she does anyway and inevitably trips over her own feet or over some toy that had been left out, and she crashes to the ground in a heap of tears and wailing, clutching a carpet-burned knee. If they would just listen to mommy or daddy, then they wouldn’t have these self-inflicted wounds.

Israel was the same kind of child. God loves Israel deeply. But there were times that the people refused to listen to God. There were times when they were disobedient children. Justice demands that they be punished. So God says, “They shall return to the land of Egypt,” (NRSV). Egypt of course symbolizes bondage, “and Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me. The sword rages in their cities, it consumes their oracle-priests, and devours because of their schemes. My people are bent on turning away from me.” (NRSV). These are harsh words, but justice demands that there be punishment for sin.

I’m not sure what kind of parent it makes me, but the second time my son ventured into the extreme sport of bunk bed diving and crashed to the floor, I wanted to spank him. Two of my greatest desires in the world are to be a good husband and a good father, but I was angry with my son for leaning over the safety bar again after he had been told a hundred times not to do it. I was angry because he hurt himself and he very well could have been seriously injured or even killed.

Yes, I wanted to spank the little turkey as he was clasping his aching noggin while his face bristled with tears. And for a moment, I weighed the options of justice or mercy, but even while I mulled this over, I was already moving toward him, getting down on the floor, examining my injured son, picking him up and loving on him. I didn’t spank him. I was still angry, and he lost the privilege of sleeping on the top bunk, but I was more concerned about him than my anger. All I could do was take care of him.

As God wrestles with the demands of justice and of mercy, he cries out, “How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim.” (NRSV).

When the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were erased from the face of the earth, Admah and Zeboiim were destroyed with them (Deut. 29:23). But God, as a loving parent, draws back from the horror of it all—the punishment that justice demands—and decides in favor of mercy. Why is it that God’s mercy wins out over God’s justice? We don’t know: that’s just the way God is. “For I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.” (NRSV).

So God’s people, in spite of the judgment to come—a judgment they very much deserved, would not be utterly destroyed. The Assyrians came, and Israel went into exile. Its people were scattered. But Hosea promises restoration. God’s people will turn toward the Lord and “come trembling like birds from Egypt.” (Hosea 11:11, NRSV). Again, Egypt represents bondage. They will return to the Lord and to their homes.

Yet, God has moved even further than we could imagine. God moves beyond even mercy and extends grace to those who turn back to God. What they deserved was justice, but God gave them mercy and, even more than that, God gave them grace. The simplest definitions of justice, mercy, and grace are that Justice is getting what you deserve. Mercy is not getting what you deserve. And grace is getting what you don’t deserve. God moves from justice to mercy to grace.

Like Israel, we have all sinned and therefore justice demands that what we deserve is punishment. But the good news of God is that he extends mercy to us. Therefore, mercifully, God chose to take the punishment of our sins upon God’s self through the suffering and death of God’s only Son, Jesus Christ. God chose to bear for us the sentence of justice.

What a spectacular display of divine love! But then, incredibly, God doesn’t stop there, God goes much, much further. Through the unmerited grace of God we have been made children of God. God has washed away the stain of our sins and remembers our sins no more. God has brought us into his family and made us heirs of eternal life. We will be brought to our homes which God has prepared for us, and we will live with God forever.

Hosea teaches us that God loves us even more deeply than the love of a mother and a father. Through Jesus Christ, God has fulfilled the requirements of justice, the requirements of mercy, and extended to us grace—which is God’s very presence with us—which is beyond what we could ever ask or imagine. God is a God justice, a God of mercy, and most wonderfully, a God of grace.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

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