Return | Proper 13

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)

Return

In some of the most deeply emotional poetry in all of Biblical prophetic literature, Hosea tells one of the oldest stories in human history. The story gets told in many different ways throughout the pages of the Bible, beginning in Genesis and continuing through Revelation.

As a storyteller, myself, I’ve heard experts in the field of fiction writing, at almost every writing conference I’ve attended, drill into our collective heads the phrase, Show, don’t tell. Show us what happens in the scene, don’t tell us. Don’t tell the reader what happened by saying, Christopher picked up his pen and notebook and began to write a story about another world. It might be exactly what happened, but it’s boring.

Instead, put the reader in the scene by showing what happened. Say, The saga of life on an alien world poured from Christopher’s mind as his black pen scrawled slanted letters, hurried and barely legible even to himself, across the pages of his notebook. Showing is much harder work than telling, but the result is worth it. Showing is painting a portrait with words. Showing allows the reader to see in their mind’s eye, feel in their heart, and perceive in their soul what’s unfolding on the page they’re reading.

This story is about God, who loves us completely. God created us. God provides for us and delivers us when we’re in trouble. But the more God pursues us, the more we turn away. This is a story about our shame. Yet, as much as this story is about our shame, it’s even more a story of God’s grace. Hosea proves himself a master storyteller who doesn’t tell us so much as he shows us. He puts us in the scenes of human existence from God’s perspective and allows us to feel the depth of God’s pain as the tragic story of divine love and human rejection unfolds.

“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols” (Hosea 11:1 CEB).

Yet, it was God who taught Ephraim to walk. Hosea shows us a scene in which a mother and father hold out their arms to a child who can now stand and encourages them, “Come on. You can do it. Come to me.” The child grins and takes a step before crashing to the floor, wailing. That mother or father quickly scoops their child up in their arms and kisses the small hurts until their child is comforted and calm. The child won’t remember this moment: neither their fall nor their parent’s healing touch. But the mother and father will remember.

How many times did a scene like that unfold until the child could walk? How many of the child’s unremembered wounds would God kiss away?

The next scene shows a child who can now walk, and a mother and father who lead the child carefully, gripping the child’s chubby fingers as she or he toddles unsteadily at their parent’s sides. The parents walk at the child’s pace because that’s all the child can manage. Getting anywhere would be quicker if Mom or Dad simply picked the child up, but the child wants to walk, and the mother and father savor how their little one is growing and learning. Soon, their child will walk on their own, but mothers and fathers secretly hope their child will still want to hold their hand when their child is older; to maintain those cords of human kindness and bands of love throughout their lives.

Another scene shows us those tender moments when a mother and father pick up their child and hold them close against their cheek. Quiet snuggles. Soft kisses. Maybe even blowing gentle raspberries on the child’s chunky tummy rolls to get them giggling. It’s love that this scene portrays. Amazing, perfect, love.

The next scene shows a mother or father feeding their child, perhaps making a game of it with zooming noises as they move the spoon around and around until sticking it in their child’s mouth and laughing. Maybe it’s also the memory of a mother breastfeeding their child close-held to her body, or (for us more modern fathers) maybe it’s a father feeding their child with a bottle while the child is cradled in his arms.

These are scenes of deep intimacy that only an involved parent knows. These are scenes of parents who love their child in the most profound ways; parents who would do anything to protect and care for their beautiful child. This child is adored, and these parents have pledged everything for the child in their care. Because this child is theirs. Their love for their child flows in ways they never imagined possible, because the parents made this child. They’re a family.

Hosea shows us story after story in a child’s life that the child can’t remember when grown. But the mother and father remember. God is that mother and father. We are that child.

The next scenes are moments that we, as that child now grown, might want to not see again. Scenes of when we ran when God called. Scenes of the tantrums we threw, the hateful things we shouted in the heat of the moment. Scenes of the promises we broke. Scenes of the wreckage we made of our life and our relationships. Scenes of our violence, our hatred, our self-loathing, our often self-made despair.

We are children who were loved from the start. We’re also children who turned away from God. God, our loving mother and father, ran after us calling our name as we sped away but, in our rejection of the one who loves us more completely than we can possibly know, we kept going. We sought our own path. We are the children who broke God’s heart.

Verses five through seven show a God whose heart continues to break because God’s child has continued to rebel. Hosea describes how God sees the consequences the child will bear because of that rebellion. The child turned to other nations when God was right there in their midst. And those consequences are dire. “The sword will strike wildly in their cities; it will consume the bars of their gates and will take everything because of their schemes. My people are bent on turning away from me; and though they cry out to the Most High, he will not raise them up” (Hosea 11:6-7 CEB).

We might wonder at the harshness of these words, that the God who loves so profoundly won’t raise the people up when they call. But, in reality, there comes a time in our rebellion when it’s too late. This is like finally realizing we should have listened to Mom and Dad only after the judge has slammed the gavel post-sentencing. We can call out all we want as the bailiff takes us away but, at that point, Mom and Dad are helpless and heartbroken. And we’re stuck paying for the consequences of our actions. In Hosea’s story, that’s exactly what God sees happening to Israel.

And God’s heart is shattered. God is in agony. God is the one who cries out now, saying, “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. 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” (Hosea 11:8-9 CEB).

If you don’t recognize the two cities mentioned here, Admah and Zeboiim were two cities destroyed alongside Sodom and Gomorrah (c.f. Deuteronomy 29:23). How can God, as a loving parent, can give up God’s own child? The very idea causes God’s heart to recoil. God can’t give Ephraim up. Instead, God’s compassion grows warm and tender.

Yes, the portrait Hosea paints is one that shows God as angry. Every parent knows that anger is a part of being a loving parent.

God, in this moment, is deeply wounded by Israel’s rejection. God is ready to give Ephraim a spanking, but God pulls back and chooses not to come in wrath. That, too, is love.

One of the stories I wrote, The Sign of Psyche, is about young woman named Eupeithis who offends Eros, the god of love. Eros curses her to fall in love with the first man she sees, so the goddess, Psyche, protects Eupeithis with a blindfold. Eupeithis runs for freedom with a hunter she befriends, but Eros pursues her, and his pursuit—for a long time—looks to Eupeithis like hatred. But, eventually, Eupeithis changes her mind about Eros’s anger. Here’s an abridged excerpt of that moment of realization:

—–

“Why did Eros come to me?” I ask. “He was angry, I know, but what was the reason for his anger? Was he truly motivated by hatred and revenge, as I have most often thought, or was he motivated by what he, himself, is?”

“You mean love?” Orthios asks.

“Yes, exactly! Did Eros truly hate me, or was his anger a form of himself?”

“I’ve never thought of anger as a form of love,” Orthios says.

“What is anger but love at its most sorrowful moment?” I ask. “When our hearts are broken, what’s our response?”

“Ah. I see.” Orthios squeezes my hand. “Anger.”

“Yet, the hope of anger—love when it’s injured—is reconciliation. How can a child know the difference between anger borne of love and anger borne of hatred? Often, the child sees a parent’s anger as hatred because their understanding of love is too limited for them to see the true reason: that their parent loves them, wishes the best for them, and desires to teach them so they can grow out of childhood.” I sigh heavily.

Orthios stays silent.

I turn my face toward him. “If Eros had not come to me in his hot wrath, what would have become of me? I might even now be dead, having suffered some horrible end. I was so foolish, Orthios. As it is, his anger—and punishment—brought me to you.”

I touch my blindfold. “In one sense of the matter, Eros’s anger became my greatest protection. If his nature is love, then how can Eros hate me? Is hatred not counter to his very being? I’ve begun to think his anger came upon me as a shield, and that Love, himself, has given me you.”

—–

We shouldn’t be surprised when we read in Scripture that God gets angry. When someone loves as deeply as God loves, anger will happen when that love is wounded. But love pursues the beloved even through anger. That’s what God does for us. That’s why God came to us and continues to come to us every day.

While the consequences of our rejection and betrayal of God would inevitably lead to our own destruction, God’s compassion for us will not allow us to be destroyed, “for I am God and not a human being, the holy one in your midst” (Hosea 11:9 CEB). So, God will call again. God will roar like a lion, and this time God’s children will hear and obey. This time, surely, they’ll come home.

And someday, so might we. God’s love will not let us go.

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

Rev. Christopher Millay

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