Scripture: Hosea 11:1–7
The call came in the middle of the night. Normally, it would have woken her from a deep sleep, but she went to bed that night with an uneasy feeling, and had barely slept all night. She knew that her daughter had been engaging in some pretty risky behaviors. A few weeks earlier, when she had been vacuuming in her room, she found something that she thought might be drug paraphernalia. With it were some pills that she knew that she didn’t have a prescription for. For an hour, she just sat on the floor in the room and cried.
After that, she tried to ask her daughter about what she found, starting with calm and controlled conversation, but before long it degenerated into a lot of yelling…trying to put the fear of God in her about where she might end up. Next was honest, vulnerable pleading…she was all she had after her father had died, and she didn’t know if she could handle it if something happened to her. Then she tried to enlist others to help…her grandparents, her old Sunday school teacher, even her old boyfriend who had broken up with her when she got involved with this crowd. Every strategy she tried had failed. In fact, each one seemed like it pushed her further and further away. In the end, she thought maybe if she didn’t even say anything, at least things wouldn’t get worse.
Until they did. That night, when she went to bed, her daughter was nowhere to be seen. Mom had texted her several times, but it wasn’t the first time that she had been out this late, so she tried to go to sleep. Fitful, she had woken up several times to see if her car was in the driveway. But it wasn’t. Since she couldn’t fall asleep, she looked back through her phone at pictures of her daughter as a little girl. A video of some of her first steps, while she stood over her and guided her. Pictures of Halloween costumes through the years…an adorable pudgy orange tiger, Wonder Woman, Hermione Granger with her little wand. Pictures of her graduation from elementary school…she was so proud of her little vinyl cap and gown that she wore it every day for a week. Her first middle school dance with a boy…in the picture he was standing there looking rather awkwardly, not sure what to do or say, but the way that she looked up at him like he was on the front cover of GQ made her mom’s heart melt. Then and now.
It went on like that for hours into the night…her thinking about all of the sacrifices that she had made for her daughter, wondering what she had done wrong for her to travel down this road of destructive behavior. So she wasn’t really asleep when the call came in the night. At first, she could barely tell that it was her daughter. She said that she was calling from the county jail, and she needed someone to pick her up. Her friends had all abandoned her when the cops showed up at the party, and she was left with some pretty incriminating evidence. They said that as long as you bring the checkbook, you can take her home tonight. Her voice sounded hoarse and distant. Her mom didn’t even know for sure if she knew the voice on the other side of the phone.
So begins the 11th chapter of Hosea. More or less. Two weeks ago, we read about Rehoboam and Jeroboam. Rehoboam was Solomon’s son, and because he took a hard stance against the northern tribes, they abandoned him and began to govern themselves independently. Unfortunately, that did not go well. Jeroboam had immediately set up alternative worship centers to the Temple, deepening the divide between the north and the south. And if that wasn’t bad enough, he built two symbols at those worship centers: two golden calves. If you wanted to create a more obvious symbol of disobedience of the commandments of Yahweh, you couldn’t find one worse than a golden calf: the original sign of disobedience of the people at Sinai. When the Scriptural record talks about the failures of the northern kings, it says, “they walked in the ways of their father Jeroboam.”
Jump forward a couple of hundred years later: after the reign of Ahab and Jezebel in the north, which Cristina talked about last week with Elijah, a prophet named Hosea began his ministry during the reign of a king named Jeroboam II. A guy who thought, “That’s a name I want to be connected to.” It’s like calling your kid Benedict Arnold Jones. “Good strong name.” Jeroboam II and his successors continued to walk in the ways of Jeroboam I. They worshiped at the golden calf worship centers. They followed the religions of their neighbors instead of God. As the Assyrian Empire began enveloping their neighbors, the kings of Israel started falling all over themselves to give tribute and honor to them, worshiping Empire instead of God. Each one in succession did the same. Hosea saw all of this as problematic, and began to speak against it.
Up until now, we have been reading historic books about kings and prophets. But we move now into some passages that are instead by the prophets themselves. They are the dissenting voices, both spoken and written. Much of these prophetic books are written in poetic form. They are poetic literature proclaiming the injustice of God’s people, and speaking on behalf of God about God’s justice and righteousness. Mishpat and Tzadiquah. And they are often filled with metaphorical and allegorical language, helping the people to understand in emotional and visceral terms where they have failed to be a holy people. Hosea is perhaps best known for an extended metaphor of marital unfaithfulness, using the metaphor of an unfaithful wife to proclaim that God’s people have been adulterous toward their creator and redeemer.
But here in chapter 11, the metaphor moves to one of a different family relationship. Here the prophet chooses language meant to evoke the relationship of a parent and a rebellious child. “I chose you. I loved you. I cared for you. I taught you how to walk when you were young. And you rejected me.” The story of a rebellious teenage child might feel a little close to home for some folks, but perhaps that means you are more ready than some to understand Hosea’s metaphor: how God lovingly cared like a parent, like the mom in the story, only to have that child reject and rebel in self-destructive ways. In these first seven verses of chapter 11, God is ranting and raving with frustration, like a parent who has tried their best, only to have it shoved back in their face.
But then we get to verse 8:
8How 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.
9I 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.
Ephraim is another name for the northern tribes. Admah and Zeboiim were cities that were destroyed at the same time as Sodom and Gomorrah. God is lovingly, tenderly, telling them that regardless of their rebellion and unfaithfulness, they will never be outside of God’s love. Regardless of what they deserve, they will receive grace. Hosea builds a case over and over again for why the people do not deserve the love and grace and mercy of God. And yet God gives it to them anyway. It is a story of “and yet.”
• You have been unfaithful to my commandments, and yet, I forgive you.
• You have forgotten justice and righteousness, and yet, I will not come in wrath.
• Over decades of disobedience—centuries!—you deserve nothing but punishment, and yet I will show mercy.
Two theological surprises to pull out here. Two things that this says about God. One, those of you who want to say things like “that Old Testament God is nothing but judgment and violence!” would do well to read Hosea. You would actually do well to read the whole Old Testament, but start with Hosea. The same God present in Jesus is here in Hosea. This is the God of “I will never leave you or forsake you”…. of “turn the other cheek”: you have wronged me, but I forgive…of “bring the fatted calf, for this son of mine was dead and is alive again.” Perhaps as Jesus went up into the hills to pray and reflect on his Scripture, it was Hosea that often came to mind. It’s the same God!
Secondly, scholar Amy Robertson points out how emotional God is here in this passage. Sometimes folks seem nervous ascribing emotions to God, or naming God as emotional, lest it make God look weak. But I think that says more about what we think of emotions than of God. God’s full range of emotion here is indicative of God’s strength. This is an incredibly emotion-laden passage. Both God’s anger and God’s deep and tender parental love. It demonstrates that God is not a dispassionate, disconnected deity, but a fully invested, fully feeling parent, caring about us so deeply that the emotions flow.
What does it mean if the God of Hosea is the same God in our lives today? These are the same surprises for us!
The God of yesterday, today, and tomorrow is still a God of feeling. If we worship a God who has an emotional side, why should we be ashamed of our feelings? Again, it is Robertson who reminds us of this. In Hosea, “God feels all the feelings…this is a God who describes vulnerable, emotional, compassionate power.” Emotions are not our weakness, but our strength!
And what about the second surprise? Not only is God still a God of feelings, but God is a still a God of forgiveness. I know I have quoted Philip Yancey’s book more than once, What’s So Amazing About Grace, but it is worth every page. One of my favorite quotes was on the screen at the beginning of the service: “God loves people because of who God is, not because of who we are.” The God of the New Testament AND the Old Testament is still the God of forgiveness today. Pile up your list of sins, and see if they are too big for God to forgive. I don’t know where your struggles live today…your guilt…your shame. But let the God of Hosea whisper in your ear like a loving parent: “I will not come in wrath.”
Which leads to the third reminder. Finally, God is still a God of “and yet.” God knows it all, and yet, comes with forgiveness and not wrath. That fact is just as prophetic now as it was then. If we are to stand against the culture, it will mean standing against the shame-inducing, violence-celebrating culture that is in love with wrath. Some of you have asked me what you can do about the violence and the hatred in the world. Start there. Tell them about the God of “and yet.” Start with God’s love and grace…and see where that goes!
Even though she had had nightmares about this moment, when she actually got the call, she froze. She had no idea what to say. A thousand responses went through her mind, most of them roughly translated as “I told you so.” How could this little girl with the cap and gown, her little baby orange tiger, the preteen who gushed whenever that goofy boy walked in the room, be sitting in a jail cell surrounded by dangerous criminals?! Of course she knew…because she had ignored her mother. How many times had she warned her that this would happen? Now what? This would be on her permanent record. She wouldn’t be able to keep the scholarship that she had just been offered. Or worse…depending on what she was found with, she might be looking at jail time. Her friends will be going to prom and graduating from high school while she is sitting in the county jail! How could she have been this irresponsible?!
All this went through her head in a matter of milliseconds. But the silence was long enough that her daughter wondered if the connection had dropped. She croaked, barely able to hold back the tears, “Mom?”
And in that instant, nothing else mattered. Mom was throwing on her clothes and grabbing her purse while she kept talking. She was already in the car driving as the officer explained what needed to happen next. As she flew down the dark and empty road, she had to Google exactly where the jail was, dangerously swerving as she got too close to the curb. She parked in the wrong spot and went to the wrong door, and ended up running around the building in the dark. She accidently took her keys through the metal detector. Everything was keeping her from getting to her daughter’s side as quickly as she could!
Finally, after walking through a maze of institutional hallways, she saw her. It took everything inside of her not to jump over the desk to run to her. She barely heard the words that the officer was telling her, wanting only to get to her. Finally, after everything was explained, they ran to each others’ arms. There were no words. Not an “I told you so.” Not a “How could you?” As she threw her arms around her baby tiger, they both broke into tears. Of course, there was more work to be done. Healing and restoration. But in that moment…there was only love. Only forgiveness. Only grace.