One of the most powerful aspects of our faith in Jesus is the realization that God himself, having worn human flesh, experienced firsthand the struggles and hardships of human life. “He was despised and rejected by people, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering,” Isaiah wrote. Likewise the book of Hebrews, speaking of Jesus, says “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tested in every way, just as we are….” To pray for the suffering people of Haiti is to pray to a God who understands suffering. To pray for your own troubles and grief is to pray to a God who gets it. As the old spiritual sings: “Nobody knows the trouble I seen, nobody knows but Jesus.” True, as Martin Luther King Jr. also recognized, “The struggle is still there. It gets discouraging sometimes. It gets very disenchanting sometimes. …It seems to mean nothing. And so often … you are left lonesome; you are left discouraged; you are left bewildered.” But Jesus knows the trouble I seen. He knows the loneliness. He knows the discouragement. He knows how you feel. And there is power in that.
But what about God’s feelings? That’s sort of an odd thing to ask. “Who is the unchangeable Almighty that he would be subject to the changing tides of emotion?” And yet page through the Bible and you read over and over again about a God who gets hurt and aggrieved and angered by the infidelity of his people whom he loves. Whenever we suffer personal trouble or disaster, the tendency is to wonder why God doesn’t do something. Does he not care? Does he not really love us? But open the book of Hosea and God asks the same questions about us. If we are people who belong to God, then why don’t we do something to show it? Do we not care? Do we not truly love the Lord? How do you think this makes God feel?
Having completed a year-and-a-half walk through Mark’s gospel, I thought it time to turn back to the Old Testament, which I would like to do through Epiphany and Lent by taking us through Hosea. Based on the data in verse 1, Hosea’s prophetic career likely ran from around 760-710 BC. It was a tumultuous time in Israel’s history—as is usually the case whenever prophets show up. King Jeroboam II had reigned over a booming economy, political stability and border security; and yet as we know from our own recent history, booming economies mask deep rifts between rich and poor. Political stability is a moving target. And secure borders are mostly a state of mind. Once Jeroboam died, chaos ensued. The economy tanked. Successions to the throne came by way of assassinations. National security was threatened by a burgeoning and menacing Assyria. Why didn’t God do something? Perhaps he would have had his people honored their vows and kept the faith. But instead they didn’t, choosing instead to place their faith in other lovers—silly idols carved out of sticks and stones.
It sounds ridiculous. How could anybody ever choose a thing over a person, a chiseled rock over a real relationship? You’ve probably seen the Lite Beer commercial that spoofs an e-harmony ad with this sappy couple dancing and hugging with goofy music chirping in the background. The grinning man remarks, “What can I say? I have discriminating taste.” His gorgeous girlfriend adoringly gazes at him and agrees. They dance a little more. Then he says, “I never thought I’d find the one, I mean, I found ones that I liked in the past, but none that I really loved!” “Until now?” she asks with assured anticipation. “Until now,” he says, as he raises his bottle of Lite beer. Naturally she furiously storms off and we laugh at the absurdity. But it’s a nervous laugh. Who hasn’t ignored or snubbed another person, if not for a beer, then for football on television, or a computer game, or a new iPhone app, or any other number of personal pursuits. Actual people can be so time-consuming, and so demanding.
And what about God? Sure, he forgives your sins and guarantees an eternity of good life, but he also tells you to love your enemies and work for justice and be generous with your money and take time for the poor. He insists that you speak the truth, honor your relationships and deny your own needs for others’ sake. Who’s got the time and energy for all of that? Better to have gods you can manage; ones that let you do whatever makes you happy.
When the Israelites first entered the Promised Land, they found it overrun with an idolatry tied to the seasons and cycles of nature. That these gods supposedly controlled the death and fertility of nature, led to all kinds of twisted rituals, from forced prostitution to even human sacrifice. God warned the Israelites to sweep the Promised Land clean of this scourge, but not all of it was so bad. A lot of it felt good. Why deny yourself if you can please yourself instead? Why submit yourself to the will of your Creator when you can have creation submit to you? What’s so wrong with playing around a little? Is it such a terrible thing to have a few idols in my life? Is it so bad to do whatever makes me happy?
Hosea answers yes. Israel’s idolatry wasn’t just playing around; it was adultery of the highest order. If you have ever loved and had that love betrayed and abandoned, a marriage vow broken, then you know the hurt and the grief and the anger that ensue. But when you’re the adulterer, you rationalize and minimize the pain and grief and anger you cause. Therefore, in order that the people might understand the hurt their infidelity had caused, that they might know how God feels, the Lord recruited Hosea. But instead of just sending Hosea to preach some hellfire sermons, he sends Hosea through personal hell. Whether it’s the former addict, the ex-con, the deceived employee or the cheated spouse—nobody communicates with deeper conviction and authenticity than the ones who have been there. So God takes Hosea there. Verse 2: “Go, marry a whore, and get children with a whore; for the country itself has become nothing but a whorehouse by abandoning Yahweh.”
What if the first words you ever heard from God were “find yourself an unfaithful spouse”? Can you imagine? So much for e-harmony. No way a God so committed to family values would command such a thing. You must be hearing things. But what if you were actually hearing God? What if you could be sure that it was his voice telling you this? I bet you wouldn’t do it. Who would? If you’ve ever been in an unfaithful marriage you wouldn’t wish it upon your worst enemy. And yet the astonishing thing—at least for those of us unaccustomed to straightforward obedience—is that Hosea goes out and does it, for better or worse. And it does get worse. Not only does Hosea purposely marry a whore, but he has three children with her after which (or during which) she cheats on him with another string of men. She does get her due, thank God, by getting dumped herself and hung out to dry. But then God ridiculously tells Hosea to go find her and take her back! This had to be excruciating. Gut-wrenching. Horrible. And necessary. For as time went by, Hosea understood how his own personal misery and sorrow echoed the sorrow of God. Hosea suffered what God suffered—and could therefore speak for the Lord.
Hosea’s marriage is the message. His own children become prophesy for the people. God names all the kids. The first, a son, he calls Jezreel, verse 4: “because I will soon punish the house of Jehu for the massacre at Jezreel, and I will put an end to the kingdom of Israel.” Jehu and the massacre at Jezreel refers back to 2 Kings 9 and 10 where King Jehu of Israel assumed the throne by making a bloodbath out of the notorious King Ahab and Queen Jezebel along with all their supporters and all the idolatrous priests who served them. Read the passage for yourself and you can’t help but be shocked by the violence. You conclude that Jehu clearly overreached in his bloodthirsty vengeance, except that you also read that God both commanded and commended the whole slaughter. Like it or not, divine wrath is ferocious when it comes to the kinds of evil Ahab and Jezebel perpetrated. So then why is the house of Jehu being punished and Israel destroyed? Jehu’s punishment is not for the massacre at Jezreel, but for failing to learn its lesson. No sooner was the pagan idolatry eliminated than Jehu and his successors began to practice it for themselves.
Why the fascination? Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel writes that pagan gods have always appealed to the imagination and are beloved by poets, painters and I would add movie-makers (if you’ve had a chance to see Avatar in 3-D yet). Heschel asserts that the idea of one God who created heaven and earth is too hard to handle. There is such multiplicity and variety of beings, so many thousands of communities and millions of people, along with countless numbers of galaxies and stars—how can there be only one God? Throw in notions of the Trinity and the Incarnation and the Cross and the Second Coming, not to mention all the commandments and all the suffering and self-denial—no wonder idolatry is so easy on the imagination—and so desirable too.
Avatar paints the picture of a luscious, anti-technological fantasy land (created by the latest advances in computer technology ironically) where life in lived in harmonious (and literal) sync with nature, albeit a fake nature. Movie critic Ty Burr, in reviewing Avatar, writes how the movie “brings us one step closer to what has long been the holy grail of our pop culture industrial complex: Fully immersive mass-appeal dream-worlds. So what happens to reality when the fantasy outpaces it? You remember reality, don’t you? The place we live when we don’t have our heads stuck in a TV screen or a cellphone or a Wii or an iTouch or a computer screen or any of the hundreds of digital interfaces we encounter every day?” It’s not a rhetorical question. The week after “Avatar’’ opened, Burr received this e-mail:
I am a 20-year-old male, who lives a normal life in this normal world. But after seeing so many movies that have awed me, this one just has done something I can’t explain. The non-realistic nature of it makes me want to live it, to actually go to the wonderful place that I have seen in the film. To take my normal, unsatisfying life and transform it into that of which cannot be. It burns so much that once I returned home from the theater it brought tears to my eyes . . . Hopefully one day we will have technology to go into such a world of beauty and amazement.
This is the fascination of idolatry—the power of non-realistic realities we craft for ourselves. As Ty Burr writes, “we’ve become so adept at building fantasy worlds that waking life has become a burden—a gray limbo to which we resentfully return, sharing it as we do with ugly headlines, unpleasant bosses, and all those other people who, sadly, aren’t us. Why bother returning at all, when the entertainment omniverse is at our fingertips 24/7? Why jack out when the movies will be offering total immersion playing to all of us individually, when 3-D will be arriving on the family TV within a few years? Now that screens are everywhere—on phones, in restaurants, in cabs, in public bathrooms— we don’t have to think about realities beyond our control. We don’t have to think at all. Our entertainment wonderworlds are …for many an addictive replacement for actually living one’s life. What’s depressing is how masturbatory and lonely so many of these experiences are, playing for our sole amazement while keeping actual humans at bay.”
It’s a movie! Or in Israel’s case, it’s a statue! A wooden figurine. A tinker toy. Take off the glasses. The God of Abraham is a real live 3-D deity right here who invites you into an actual relationship of love and hope with a flesh and blood Jesus instead of with a vacuous collection of digitized pixels or a silly trinket carved out of rock.
But alas, a relationship with a 3-D God feels too burdensome and grey. Sure, he forgives your sins and guarantees an eternity of good life, but he also tells you to love your enemies and work for justice and be generous with your money and take time for the poor. He insists that you speak the truth, honor your relationships and deny your own needs for others’ sake. Who’s got the time and energy for all of that? It’s too hard to do—and so we don’t do it.
Therefore Hosea and Gomer have a daughter named “No Mercy” because there will be no more mercy from God. How can this be? What parent could ever abandon refuse to love their child? What kind of father would ever abandon his daughter—not to mention name her no mercy? And yet that’s what we read in verse 6: “I will no more have mercy on the house of Israel, I will no more show love that I should forgive them at all.” And as if that weren’t awful enough, another kid has to be born into this troubled marriage whom God names “Not My People,” which plenty of people understood to mean “Not My Kid.” Some commentators believe that the name meant that Gomer had already started sleeping around again and that this third child wasn’t Hosea’s son at all. Heap humiliation and scandal onto the betrayal and adultery and can you imagine the deep hurt and sorrow Hosea feels? If you can then you can imagine how God feels. And you can understand why he seems so distant and absent when trouble and disaster strike.
Except that when you go to the very next verse you read “the Israelites will be like sand on the seashore, which cannot be measured or counted. And in the place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ they will be called children of the living God.’” What? Scholars insist this has to be a mistake—a later addition by some rabbi who felt bad for his congregation. How can anybody so betrayed and abandoned by his loved ones to the point of pronouncing “no mercy” and “not mine” make such a turnaround? The first hint comes in verse 7 where the Lord says he will save the house of Judah. In a classic power struggle following the reign of King Solomon, Solomon’s feuding sons had split the kingdom in half. The northern half, to whom Hosea preached, was called Israel while the southern half was called Judah. That Hosea would hold out hope for Judah is not due to Judah’s stronger faith—they were as idolatrous as Israel. The hope is because of God’s promise. Judah is the home of King David, the land and the line from which God promised ultimate salvation. And because God always keeps his promises, we eventually read: “Unto you is born in the city of David, a Savior who is Christ the Lord” A genuine, 3-D savior, God in the flesh, who died on a cross for the sake of a mercy so unimaginable that it must be real.
How does God feel? The apostle Paul put it this way: “God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners—idolaters and adulterers—Christ died for us.” In God’s eyes you are more wicked than you could ever fathom. And in Christ God loves you more than you could ever hope.