1 Kings 19:1-18
Hosea 6:1-6; 11:1-9
Narrative Lectionary (Prophets)
January 15, 2012
“Sinners in the hands of an ambivalent God”
Many of you will remember that last fall we began the Narrative lectionary. For a series of Sundays we focused on key stories from the Bible in chronological order. We began with creation in Genesis, heard stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs of the faith, and ended with the era of the kings and the building of the temple.
Now that we have celebrated Advent and Christmas, we are going back to the Narrative lectionary. We’ll finish up the Old Testament, the Hebrew scriptures, by looking at the prophets in these next few weeks before the beginning of Lent.
In order to get in all of the readings, we heard readings from two of the prophets this morning–Elijah and Hosea. As we spend some time with the prophets, it is important for us to understand who the prophets were–and who they were not.
We often have this idea of prophets as people who predict the future, like fortune tellers setting up a tent and gazing into their crystal ball. It is true that prophets sometimes told people what would happen–but not by gazing into a crystal ball. They assessed possibilities for the future based on the current attitudes and actions of the people, much like scientists today who warn that ice caps will melt and natural disasters will increase because of global warning. The point of the prophecies is not for the prophets to be right and say “I told you so.” The point of the prophecies is to convince people to change their sinful behavior so that the pronounced disasters do NOT happen.
The biblical prophets lived at different times, in different parts of Israel; they were concerned with different political and social problems of their day. Yet all of the prophets are deeply concerned with the sins of their people and with God’s response to that sin. This morning I want to look particularly at how Hosea deals with this concern of human sin and God’s response.
Let me warn you up front that, in the true spirit of the prophets, I intend to offend as many people as possible with what I’m about to say. I expect to upset liberals and conservatives in equal measure. And if anyone walks up to me after worship and smiles and shakes my hand and says, “Nice sermon, pastor,” I will know you weren’t listening.
The first reality we must acknowledge when dealing with the prophets is that sin is real and people do it–a lot. I know we don’t like to talk about sin much here. I’ve never really been around people who use “sin” language. Growing up, I remember my mom telling me that she didn’t like to call anything a “sin;” she preferred to talk about “unhealthy choices.” And I understand why the term “sin” makes many of us uncomfortable. We’ve too often heard it used by religious folk in harshly judgmental ways–particularly related to a person’s sexual identity and activities.
Still, “sin” is an essential theological, an essential biblical concept. We cannot have a clear understanding of God’s love or of salvation in Christ if we do not accept the fact that we–individually and collectively–sin.
And when I say that you–and I–sin, I am not referring to who you sleep with or to that four letter word I heard you say last week. Here’s my definition of sin–and by the way, the understanding of sin presented in the Mennonite Confession of Faith: sin is anything that damages a relationship: between yourself and another person; between yourself and God. Sin is what goes against the love we are called to by God through Christ.
So certainly there is such a thing as sexual sin–our sexual choices deeply affect our relationships. And yes, the words we speak can be sinful if they damage another person. Our consumption can also be sinful if it supports the oppression of workers, if it damages this planet that we all share. Our silence can be sinful if it allows policies to continue that harm vulnerable people.
It’s also important to keep in mind something that the prophets certainly understood: sin is not just–or even primarily–an individual concern. We sin collectively. The Nazis, as a body, perpetuated the Holocaust. The United States, as a nation, unjustly invaded Iraq. Our individual moral choices do matter, yet sin is much bigger than our individual moral choices.
If we understand sin as something that damages relationship, we can easily see that Hosea is primarily concerned with the relationship between the people and God. This is the relationship that has, according to Hosea, been deeply damaged by the people turning to idols and worshiping false gods.
In the second verse of the book of Hosea, God says to the prophet: “Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord.” So that’s what Hosea does; he marries a prostitute in order to prove the point that the people of Israel are being unfaithful to their God. And he proceeds to name their three “children of whoredom” “God sows,” “not pitied,” and “not my people.” You can imagine this family was not at the top of the guest lists for the fashionable parties of their day.
Obviously, Hosea was not interested in being popular. He was out to prove a point; to preach a message: there will be negative consequences because of the people’s unfaithfulness to God.
And indeed, there were negative consequences for the people of Israel. They were attacked by the Assyrians and taken into Babylonian captivity. Many prophets attributed the Babylonian exile to the people’s unfaithfulness toward God.
Historians could certainly point to various political and economic factors that led to the Assyrian conquest of Israel.
The facts of the captivity are generally agreed upon. It’s the cause and effect relationship that gets tricky. Was the Babylonian captivity punishment from God for the people’s unfaithfulness? Was it the result of the internal political fighting that led to a divided and weakened nation of Israel?
Even Hosea can’t quite decide if God is punishing or saving the people: “God has torn us to pieces, but will heal us.” “Will not Assyria rule over them because they refuse to repent?” “All my compassion is aroused. I will not carry out my fierce anger.”
According to Hosea, the people of Israel are sinners in the hands of an ambivalent God; a God who cannot decide whether to punish or save. A God at once angry and full of compassion. It’s a confusing book to read if you are looking for theological answers about God’s response to sin.
My Old Testament professor, Tom McDaniel, told us that the Bible is the Word of God about the ways of God and the ways of God’s people. So perhaps Hosea tells us not so much about God’s response to sin as he tells us about the ancient human struggle to make sense of the bad things that happen; our desire to find reasons for our suffering; our search for God in the midst of our sin and the messes we get ourselves into. This struggle to understand continues today, of course.
Jerry Fallwell and I agree that the attacks of September 11 were caused, in part, by the sins of the American people. He would say that those sins were the sins of gays and lesbians, of “abortionists,” of the “secular” people. I would say those sins were collective national sins of greed, nationalism, militarism–so many attitudes and actions that cause ill will around the world. And of course there was deep sin on the part of those who perpetuated the attacks as well.
Broken relationships–at any level–can have negative consequences; and it is a harsh reality that the people who suffer those consequences are not always the people most responsible–or even at all responsible–for the sin in the first place.
Fred Phelps and I agree that the deaths of U.S. soldiers are a result of sin. He would say God is killing soldiers in Iraq because our country is increasingly tolerant of gays and lesbians. I would say that people are killing each other in Iraq because of the deep sin of violence; because we are further destroying already broken relationships rather than working to restore them.
So does God punish us for our sins? It’s a difficult prophetic question.
In the case of Hosea, we could say the prophet and the historians are both partially correct. Surely the internal divisions and fighting within the nation of Israel could be considered sin. And surely these divisions are what made the nation vulnerable to attack.
In many cases, it is easy to draw a direct line between sin and its negative consequences. The intervention of a punishing God is not necessary to understand 9/11 or the deaths of soldiers or the Assyrian defeat of Israel.
In other cases, though, there seems to be no reason at all for suffering; no sin to lead to a negative consequence; nothing for God to punish.
And sometimes we experience what theologians like to call grace. We know we have sinned. We know that an action we have taken should lead to something bad happening, and yet the feared consequences do not come. We are protected from our own selfishness. We are forgiven. We are given another chance.
It seems to me that all of these views of sin are present in Hosea. That he was wrestling with these questions as we do. I have to be honest with you about this book. I find the whole “marry a whore” thing terribly troublesome in terms of the attitude it presents toward women in general and the dehumanization of Hosea’s wife, Gomer, in particular. I find the words about God destroying people quite troubling. Hosea would probably be one of my least favorite books in the Bible . . . except for one day in Dr. Koch’s seminary class.
Dr. Koch was my New Testament professor at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He had also been my Dad’s New Testament professor at Eastern. He was not a particularly dynamic or emotional man. I began entertaining myself in his class by making a list of odd, quaint words and phrases he would use like: sticky wicket, fly in the ointment, and penchant.
I can’t tell you why we were talking about Hosea in New Testament class. But I distinctly remember this slight, gray-haired man telling us about the prophet. How he married a prostitute and loved her. Just the way God loved and continues to love God’s people despite our unfaithfulness, despite our sin. And as he talked about the message of Hosea, he had tears in his eyes.
I’ve had a soft spot for the old guys ever since–both Dr. Koch and Hosea.
While Dr. Koch’s tearful account of the message of Hosea was oversimplified, while it neglected a lot of the complicated and troubling aspects of the prophet’s life and message, I think he latched on to the central image from the prophet: God as parent.
We heard this lovely metaphor from the eleventh chapter of Hosea:
“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.
But the more they were called, the more they went away from me.
They sacrificed to the Baals and they burned incense to images.
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.”
This metaphor of God as loving parent cannot, of course, answer all of our theological questions or iron out all of the sticky wickets we run into when we think about our sin and God’s response to it. Still, I think it is a helpful metaphor. Good, loving parents respond to their children’s disobedience, or sin, in different ways at different times. Sometimes they do punish their children–with the hope of helping the child avoid more serious consequences in the future. Sometimes they let their children suffer natural consequences. And sometimes they swoop in and shield the child from consequences that seem too harsh, too hard.
And so perhaps God also punishes and allows consequences and shields us.
I still think Hosea is a troublesome, conflicted book. Yet in the midst of the theological chaos, two truths seems clear:
1) Human beings sin–we hurt each other; we damage our relationship with God.
2) God loves us deeply. Anyway. Always.
Thanks be to God.