The Roar of Mercy

A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian’s Sabbath Worship service

November 14, 2015

Hosea 11:1-11

The Book of Hosea is a good illustration of why we should take the Bible seriously, but not take it literally. Because Hosea is filled with all kinds of metaphor and imagery.

In the beginning of the book, God gives Hosea an odd instruction:

“When the LORD first spoke through Hosea, the LORD said to Hosea, “Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the LORD.”

The idea is that Israel, by following false Gods, was behaving as a spouse who doesn’t just cheat on their spouse, but does so for supposed gain as a prostitute.

The imagery is strong. And uncomfortable. And confusing. Because nobody wants to be in a relationship with someone who intentionally hurts them. And, for Hosea, that is exactly how it felt for God to be in the covenantal relationship with the fickle and unfaithful Israelites. This is a problematic text for anyone who has been in an abusive relationship. In the story of Hosea, we are the people who wound, who treat God callously, who refuse to be faithful.

By the time Hosea is writing, in the 8th century BCE, the Northern Kingdom is about to fall to Assyria. Hosea sees a direct connection between this failure of the Nation and the behavior of the King and the people. Worshiping other Gods, seeking alliances and making compromises with other nations, rather than trusting in God. For Hosea, these actions are proof of Israel’s infidelity and their tendency to prostitute themselves to their neighbors.

But by the time we get to chapter 11, which we read tonight, we have some additional imagery. In this chapter, God takes on the role of parent.

    When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
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.
I led them with cords of human kindness,
with bands of love.
I was to them like those
who lift infants to their cheeks.
I bent down to them and fed them.

Whether or not we are parents, we have seen parents doing exactly what God did for Israel.

Holding out arms and encouraging a toddler to take their first steps, all the while ready to catch them before they fall.

Kissing boo-boos and putting Hello Kitty band aids on invisible wounds.

Giving hugs and lots of affection because it is just what people do for infants and children.

And it is how children grow up to be secure and confident in themselves. Knowing that they are loved, safe, and nurtured.

We’ve been hearing the story of Israel this Fall. The Old Testament tells us again and again of God’s love for Israel and of Israel’s tendency to walk away from that love.
Again.
And again.
And again.

While Hosea does hit Israel over the head with reminders of her infidelity and by calling her a whore, he wants to do more. He wants to make them REMEMBER.

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

Hosea wants Israel to look back at their collective memories and to remember who they are and whose they are. He wants them to remember how much they are loved and cared for. He wants them to remember their covenant relationship with the God who has delivered them from slavery in Egypt and who is deeply present in the struggles of their lives.

But then there’s the whole Assyrian invasion problem. The behavior of God’s people leads them into some dangerous situations, like invasion, destruction, and exile at the hands of the Assyrians.

Our behavior, and the behavior of others, does that to us as well. We can’t always escape our consequences, and we end up far away from home, like a prodigal son. We end up in exile in Assyria, or alcohol, or homelessness, or whatever it may look like for each of us.

And the text tells us that God can’t just leave us there.

    How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
My heart recoils within me;
my compassion grows warm and tender.
I will not execute my fierce anger;
I will not again destroy Ephraim;

As we navigate this earthly life, things are going to happen to us that cause us pain and sadness. And those things cause God pain and sadness too.

“Long have I waited for your coming home to me, and living, deeply, our new life.” as the song we sang tonight went.

God has every right to leave us to our own destruction and the messes we make. God could choose to throw up the divine hands and walk away, leaving us to our folly.
Instead we get mercy.

    I will not execute my fierce anger;
I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and no mortal,
the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come in wrath.

God chooses not to exercise God’s fierce anger on Israel. God actually takes the judgment into God’s very self. As one of my professors, Walter Brueggemann, points out about this story, Hosea reminds us that the God who suffers on the cross has been living out that gospel of mercy from the beginning. Because God is God and no mortal. The Holy One in your midst.

When people speak of the judgment of the Old Testament and the love of the New Testament, remember Hosea, and the love of God that absorbs the pain of the world into the very self of God. Divine love, suffering, and forgiveness are not “new” in the New Testament. They are essential attributes of God.  There is only one God, and God is not limited by the fact that we don’t understand and that we cannot comprehend the vastness of God.

For all of the nice, nurturing, maternal imagery in this passage, that image is not the only image for God in this chapter.  Hosea describes the return of the people to God like this:

    They shall go after the LORD,
who roars like a lion;
when he roars,
his children shall come trembling from the west.
They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt,
and like doves from the land of Assyria;
and I will return them to their homes, says the LORD.

God is both the God who picks up the baby and holds it to the cheek, and God is also the God whose roar leaves us quaking in our boots, trembling like birds. Because God is God and no mortal, the Holy one in your midst.

I can’t help but think of CS Lewis when I read this last section from Hosea. In the Chronicle of Narnia books, Aslan is the Christ-like lion who helps and guides the characters through their journeys in Narnia. But the characters in the books take care to remind people that “Aslan is not a tame lion.”

Time for the Lord to Act
I don’t know how much time you have spent in the presence of a lion, personally, but it isn’t something that sounds comfortable, safe, or even vaguely relaxing.

And this is where we realize that as much as we are supposed to remember who we are, we are supposed to remember who God is. And to remember how unfathomable God is, never an answer to grasp but a vast mystery, where the best we can do is float on our backs, trusting that the warm waters of the mystery of God will carry us as we journey across the surface of its ocean-like depths.

Because God, who calls us, again and again, to return to God, is God and no mortal, the Holy one in your midst.

God roars like a lion and when God roars, we shall come trembling from wherever it is we have been scattered.  The difficult truth in this passage is that God’s voice is not tame.

It comforts us, lifting us up to the divine cheek. It roars at us, reminding us we cannot make God fit into our expectations or our agendas. God is God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst.

Yet God’s voice of steadfast love roars at us, reminding us of mercy that restores us to God and to each other. As news of terror in Beirut, Baghdad, Paris filled my newsfeed today, I kept hearing God’s roaring cry of sadness and mercy from this passage in Hosea, and it tempered my anger and directed it away from cries of revenge and toward cries of compassion toward the victims.

I read reports that a refugee camp in Calais is burning today, possibly in response to the terror attacks. Of course, the people in that camp are fleeing the same people who attacked Paris. They are victims too. And now their few possessions are burned. God roars out. This is not the response to terror.

Calais refugee camp on fire

Calais refugee camp

While some people were setting fire to refugee camps in response to terror, other people across France were sending messages on social media with the tag “Porte Ouverte” or “Open Door” to let people know that if they were now stranded and without shelter because of the attacks, that there were open doors to receive them. That’s the risky roar of love, to provide hospitality to strangers in defiance of terror.

The roar of the world screams for self-interest and self-preservation, for violence and retribution, for the destruction of relationship.

God’s voice of justice and compassion roars at us to love each other, to care for those less fortunate, to reach out in love when faced with hate.

Friends, God’s voice will roar and call us and, quite frankly, scare the pants off of us at times. Yet, like Israel, we are called to remember God’s claim on our lives. We are called to remember exactly who we are and whose we are. Like Israel, we are called to remember and to have faith in the gifts God has given us.

Being followers of Christ is no guarantee of the easy life, or the tame life. Following Christ won’t protect you from the terrors of the world. Being a follower of Christ connects us, though, to that mysterious compassion of God that will never give up on us and will never abandon us.  Hosea calls us to remember that life to which we have been called. He calls us to listen for the roar of God’s voice calling us home. Because God will continue to roar in love, sadness, and mercy until all of God’s children are safely home.

May it be so. Amen.

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