November 10, 2019

“How Can I Give You Up?”

Hosea 11:1-9

A sermon for Hawaii Kai UCC by Janice Ogoshi

November 10, 2019

 

In the book of Hosea, images of marriage and family are woven through to illustrate the relationship that God has with God’s people.  We’ve shifted from reading stories about prophets like Elijah to reading the words spoken by prophets.                     

 

Read today’s Scripture again, this time pausing and allowing the images to fill your mind/vision.  This is poetry, meant to speak to our hearts in addition to our minds.  What do you hear or feel? [Read Hosea 11:1-9 again.]

 

What I see in our reading is a parent, going through a family photo album, recalling life when his child was very young:

“When Israel was a child, I loved him….

It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by the arms; 

but they did not realize it was I who healed them. 

I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love.  

To them I was like one who lifts a little child to the cheek, 

and I bent down to feed them.” (verses 1a, 3-4).

 

Can you see pictures of young children learning to walk, being held and kissed, being fed and having food all over their faces?  You probably have those kinds of pictures somewhere in your family photo albums.  

 

In these words we hear a voice of tenderness, recalling the early years of a child’s life.  The young child was totally dependent on his parent to feed him, to teach him how to walk, to keep him healthy.  

 

You can hear the yearning and lament in the parent’s voice because the child has grown into a rebellious adolescent:

But the more they were called, the more they went away from me.

They sacrificed to the Baals and they burned incense to images….

My people are determined to turn from me.  (verses 2, 7a)

 

The rebellious teenager deserves to be cut off from her family, as she has rejected her parent’s love.  The consequences are serious and devastating:

Will they not return to Egypt and will not Assyria rule over them

because they refuse to repent?

A sword will flash in their cities;

it will devour their false prophets and put an end to their plans.

My people are determined to turn away from me. 

Even though they call me God Most High, I will by no means exalt them (verses 5-7).

 

Many of us can relate to this image of a relationship between a parent and child that has become difficult because of the child’s choices that have led him away from his parent.  Whether we were the parent or the child, or a relative or friend who has witnessed this estrangement, we feel the anguish as the parent wrestles with whether to let her son suffer the consequences of his poor choices, or to extend help one more time.  She knows she will be betrayed again, but desperately hopes he will turn his life around.

 

I haven’t seen the movie, but watched a scene from the movie “Beautiful Boy” starring Timothee Chalamet and Steve Carell, which was the kind of interaction described in our Scripture reading.  Father and son meet at a bar, after having been absent from one another for a time.  The son has a serious addiction problem and asks the father for a couple hundred dollars so he can travel to New York to start all over again.  He’s been sober for five days, and just wants to get out of town.  The look on the father’s face reveals his love and concern, and his struggle.  He wants to give his son the money, but knows he will take it and buy drugs, not go to New York.  He offers to put his son up at a hotel for a few days to buy him some time to get help.  But the son refuses.  He’s frustrated that his father won’t give him the money.  The scene ends with both men in great pain, and the son leaves the bar and his father.

 

How can I give you up, Ephraim?  How can I hand you over, Israel?

How can I treat you like Admah?  How can I make you like Zeboyim? (verse 8a)

 

Ephraim is a tribe of the Northern Kingdom, Israel, the people the prophet Hosea is addressing in this prophetic book.  They are in imminent danger of attack by the Assyrians.  Admah and Zeboyim are cities that had been destroyed along with Sodom and Gomorrah.

 

The Lord is in anguish and is torn.  This heartbreaking image of God comes from human life experience.  In order for us to understand who God is, God has told Hosea to use pictures, images from human life.  God is telling us that God is like us when our relationships become conflicted and we don’t know whether to show tough love or compassion to our rebellious children.  God knows the anguish of showing tough love.

 

But God is God, and not human:

My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused.

I will not carry out my fierce anger, nor will I devastate Ephraim again.

For I am God, and not a man—the Holy One among you.

I will not come against their cities (verses 8b-9).

 

God’s compassion is of a divine scale, going far beyond human compassion.  Walter Brueggemann, an Old Testament scholar, described Yahweh’s change of heart:  “It is as though YHWH, through the daring of the poet, reaches deeper into YHWH’s own sensibility.  There YHWH discovers, so the poet dares to say, a deep passion and, consequently, deep compassion for Israel that precludes the destruction just announced in verses 5-7.  In this text the anticipated and legitimate punishment of Israel is foresworn.…Here the devastation is averted.”

 

In spite of their rebellion and unfaithfulness, Yahweh’s love for Israel meant that punishment was held back.  However, the history of Israel reveals that the Northern Kingdom was destroyed by Assyria in 722 BCE.  A lot of preachers have struggled with this conflict between what the prophet said and what actually happened.  It may be that God withheld a more severe punishment, or that the attack of the Assyrians was not God’s punishment, but a natural consequence of Israel’s choices and actions.  It is an unanswered question.  But what is revealed in our reading is the heart of God.  Remember, this is poetry which is meant to speak to our hearts.

 

In his reading of this passage, Walter Brueggemann goes on to explain that this change of heart, this decision to not punish Israel comes out of the holy character of God, the Holy One.  He wrote, “YHWH is not ‘a man’ to react in anger; YHWH, rather, is ‘God.’  More than that, YHWH is ‘the Holy One in Israel,’ the God whose holy character is profoundly qualified by loyalty to Israel.  This sense of self on YHWH’s part is the ground for well-being in Israel, even when Israel’s shabby treatment of YHWH merits otherwise….the tradition of Hosea is indeed a disclosure of YHWH’s deep capacity for grace….  (An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination, pp. 218-219)

 

God, being God, has a deep capacity for grace.  Over and over again, the prophet reminded the people how deep God’s love was for them.  In the image of the rebellious teenager, we can feel the deep hurt that Yahweh suffers when Yahweh’s loved ones turn away and choose to worship other gods.

 

But that hurt does not cause Yahweh to give up on Israel.  That same God, who refused to give up on Israel refuses to give up on us.  This portrayal of God in the Hebrew Scriptures is one of tenderness, supreme faithfulness, and undeserving grace.  The graciousness of Yahweh is at God’s core.

 

God continued to pour out grace upon grace on Israel, sending Jesus to earth.  Jesus expressed similar anguish and loving grace when his ministry was resisted and rejected:

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate. I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’(Luke 13:34-35)

 

God’s graciousness led God to suffer on behalf of humans, long, long ago in the time of Hosea, but supremely in Jesus Christ hanging on the cross.

 

Michael J. Chan, an Old Testament professor wrote, “Hosea 11:1-9 helps us realize that the cross is not a new development in the life of God, it represents who God is fundamentally. The cross is a climactic moment, but one that is situated along an already existent trajectory.” (https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_

=2566)

 

This is who God was, even in Old Testament times, and who God is today:  God so loved the world—which included Israel in the time of Hosea and us today—that he gave his only begotten Son.  God so loved each and every one of us, in spite of humanity’s inclination to worship other gods, in spite of our penchant toward sin, in spite of our chasing after false idols.  God so loved us that he was willing to suffer on the cross so that we could remain in intimate relationship with God.  

 

When I think about how deep God’s love is for us, and how I so often turn away from that love, how I take it for granted, how I minimize it in my mind…it’s amazing grace, isn’t it?  Doesn’t this story make you want to commit yourself again to being a committed partner in this relationship with God?  If after all our betrayal and wandering, God cannot give us up, how can we not respond in thankfulness and faith?