by Daniel Harrell
In 1810, Ludwig van Beethoven was still composing greatest hits. Napoleon annexed Holland and tragically, 18,000 Angolans were sold as slaves in Rio de Janeiro. King George III of England was declared insane. James Madison was president of the United States and Paul Revere was still crafting silver tea sets. Moose went extinct in the Caucasus region of Russia. There was no telegraph or steamboat yet. The Republic of West Florida declared independence from Spain—only to be annexed one month later by the United States so that college students would have somewhere to go on spring break. Here in Boston, the Society in Dedham for Apprehending Horse Thieves was founded. And cows still grazed on Boston Common. The Back Bay was mostly a bay, or at least tidal flats. And the recently completed Park Street Church, which held its first worship service on January 10, was the tallest building in Boston; its steeple reaching 217 feet into the sky. A lot has changed since then.
We’ve spent the past year and a half commemorating 200 years of Park Street’s history—as tonight’s video reminded us. My own personal history at Park Street comprises almost one-eighth of those two-hundred years, 23 to be exact, and over this relatively short time I’ve witnessed (and even instigated) plenty of change too—in ways we do worship, do mission, govern ourselves and serve Christ in the city. I’ve witnessed plenty of change in the congregation as well. We say that Park Street turns over by half every three years, which would make for about four totally new congregations since I’ve been here. That feels about right. It is a remarkable testimony to God’s spirit in this place that despite the turnover, the congregation remains true to its calling.
Pastor A.Z. Conrad, preaching at the 125th Anniversary, asked, “Can you invest stones, brick, wood and mortar with sanctity?” He answered “yes” insomuch as in this place “the name of Jesus Christ is magnified as the Lord of glory and …proclaimed as the son of God and savior of the world.” Perhaps this is why we call this room a sanctuary rather than the traditional Congregational meetinghouse. Our heritage in this place has been one of determined faithfulness to Jesus, transferred from generation to generation and spread literally across the country and around the world. And yet this faithfulness is not something for which we can accept tribute. The praise always goes to Christ.
Now this is not to say that Park Street’s history has been all communion wine and roses. If you’ve read historian Garth Rosell’s recent book about Park Street (written for our Bicentennial) then you know how the last quarter of the nineteenth century proved to be pretty perilous for the church. The tremendous loss of life during the Civil War coupled with an enormous loss of homes and jobs following a citywide fire in 1872, made life brutal here in Beantown. Growing tension between Protestants and Catholics over politics and immigration, as well as education, led many to flee to a better life in the suburbs. Within Park Street itself, a string of ministers made controversial moves that upset a number of people (a tradition that some of us have continued today). Attendance and giving took a nose dive, forcing Park Street to dig up the corpses it had buried in its basement burial vault to make room for a rent-paying florist and grocery store. But that barely staunched the bleeding. By around 1901, things had grown so dire that many were convinced the only way to survive would be to sell the building and move the congregation out to the suburbs too.
However, as the story goes, architecturally-minded residents of Boston came to the rescue, forming a “Committee for the Preservation of Park Street Church” by which was meant the building. They managed to save this beautiful meetinghouse, but the church continued on life support for a few more years. The history books blame the decline on the culture and the pastors, but we all know that any church’s decline is a corporate affair. Inasmuch as even the most redeemed saints remain sinners on earth, it’s not hard to imagine the sorts of things that could have been going wrong. Power struggles guised under the ruse of righteousness, fights over worship, confusion of architectural preservation with following Jesus, basic selfishness and exclusivity, a general lack of forgiveness, run-of-the-mill hypocrisy and immorality—the sorts of things that we struggle with still.
That the redeemed remain sinners on earth is nothing new. Already in the book of Hosea, the Lord has called his own chosen and redeemed people “stubborn cows” and “promiscuous whores” on account of their sin and idolatry. Here in chapter 5, Israel’s insidious idolatry has spread into Judah. Remember that when the Israelites first entered the Promised Land, they found it teeming with those who thought the statues they worshiped could control death and fertility. They fashioned a faith that at the extreme called human sacrifice and forced prostitution religious rituals. 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. What’s wrong with getting a little buzz out of your religion? Why submit yourself to the will of your Creator when you can have creation submit to you? Why not craft a fantasy reality rather than this boring life you have to endure? Is it such a terrible thing to have a few shiny statues in your life? Aren’t we all going home after church to watch the Oscars? A little idolatry isn’t going to hurt anybody, is it? A little adultery on the side? That’s how God viewed idolatry. To him, to worship another was adultery of the highest order.
Unwilling to dispense with their playthings, God determines, verse 10, to “pour out his wrath on his cheating people like a flood of water.” Though by the time you get to verse 12—perhaps remembering his promise to Noah about not using water again—the Lord decides to become as a “moth” and “dry rot,” killing them softly enough that they might still have time to repent.
Two years ago I opened my closet to discover that a couple pairs of my wool paints had been eaten by moths. Figuring that this had to be some fluke, I tossed a few moth balls into my closet and let it go at that. This past year, when I opened my closet to fetch my winter clothes, every piece of wool I owned was eaten through: three suits, a sport coat, six pairs of pants and five sweaters. Hoping to salvage some of it, I went to a tailor who told me that the way to keep moths out of wool is to clean it.
But neither Israel nor Judah did anything to clean up their wooly lives. Though holes began to emerge everywhere, the responded with what amounted to tossing a few mothballs into the closet. They turned to the king of Assyria for financial and political help instead of turning to God. Therefore the Lord lets them have the king of Assyria and it turn, the king of Assyria lets Israel have it. Assyria devours Israel like a lion, verse 14, tears them to pieces and carries them off into exile with no one to rescue them. Assyria does the deed, but the Lord takes the credit. He is the roaring lion who afterward, “will go back to my place until they admit their guilt. They will seek my face; in their misery they will earnestly seek me.”
The problem is that their seeking wasn’t so earnest—despite their misery. The first few verses of chapter 6 seems sincere: “Come, let us return to the LORD. He has torn us to pieces but he will heal us; he has injured us but he will bind up our wounds.” However the Lord’s response reveals a darker reality. I knew a budding Christian folk singer who once put these verses to music and sang them as a ballad of God’s grace. She sang it in a church I was attending at the time, melodically strumming Israel’s certainty that God always comes around in the end. “As surely as the sun rises, he will appear; he will come to us like the winter rains, like the spring rains that water the earth.” But she left out verse 4. Likewise that Israelites strummed their guitar and thought that enough to soothe the savage savior. Sure, they’d repeatedly and serially cheated on him as their husband, but c’mon, let’s hold hands and sing kum-bah-yah! That’ll make everything OK. But no sooner was their chorus completed than God just shakes his head. Verse 4: “What can I do with you, Ephraim? What can I do with you, Judah? Your love is like the morning mist, like the early dew that disappears.” I sent my prophets to cut through your crap. I killed you with the words of my own mouth. My judgments were like bright lights in your eyes. I don’t want your songs. I don’t want your sacrifices. I don’t want your burnt offerings, verse 6. What I want is your love. What I want is for you to know me, says the Lord.
This word for love in verse 6, translated as mercy in your pew Bible, is a magisterial noun in Hebrew meaning steadfast love, loyalty and covenant faithfulness. It’s like being faithful to your marriage vows, for better or worse, which is the context for Hosea, remember. The Lord commanded the prophet to marry a prostitute who will cheat on him even during the honeymoon. God commands this so that Hosea might understand God’s own relationship with his unfaithful people and therefore speak from his own pained experience about God’s hurt and God’s anger. The word translated acknowledgement in your pew Bible is Hebrew for the verb to know in the Biblical sense. Knowing God has nothing to do with memorizing a list of attributes. The language is relational rather than informational. The Lord wants his wife to be his wife.
Now contrary to popular interpretation, Hosea is not rejecting singing or sacrifices or offerings or other aspects of worship practice. What is being rejected is worship without love—going through the motions while taking God for granted. The solution is not simply more passionate worship. The solution is passionate worship that results in compassion toward others. This is why the NIV translates marital faithfulness as mercy here. Jesus said that to love God is to obey his commands. If you love God you will love your neighbor. You will love your enemies.
Jesus quotes Hosea 6:6 twice in Matthew’s gospel, both times to the Pharisees, spiritual leaders known for paying lip service to God, just like the spiritual leaders of ancient Israel paid. In Matthew chapter 9, Jesus is having dinner with Matthew himself, a despised and corrupt tax-collector whom Jesus shockingly enlisted to become a disciple. They party at Matthew’s place afterwards with a houseful of other corrupt tax-collectors, causing the Pharisees to go crazy since no Messiah worth his salt would ever share supper with a sinner. To whit Jesus famously responds, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” But then he adds, “Go and learn what Hosea meant when he wrote: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’” Had the Pharisees understood what Hosea meant, had they known God’s heart, they would have known their place was at Matthew’s table too.
Later in Matthew 12, the Pharisees do a nutty over Jesus’ disciples plucking a few pieces of grain for a Sabbath snack. Did the disciples not know that to pluck was to work and that work was expressly forbidden on the Sabbath? But again, Jesus replied, “If you had known what Hosea’s words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.” Keeping Sabbath for Sabbath’s sake means nothing.
It’s encouraging to note that by the time we get to Jesus’ day, God’s people had pretty much kicked their addiction to idols. The problem was that they did it by idolizing themselves. They took the Mosaic law and created a code whereby faithfulness could be achieved without faith. Go through the motions and you can be good without God. We see the same sort of thing in our own day. Take Sabbath-keeping. There’s a ton of guidance out there commending Sabbath-keeping as a means for achieving balance, and staying centered or resisting consumerism; a practice that is good for everybody no matter which god you worship. But attention to such spiritual practices—whether its prayer as a way to relax your mind or fasting during Lent as way to lose weight— attention to such practices actually deflects our attention away from God. As Methodist bishop Will Willimon writes, “The question that must always be asked is “Who is the God being served with what I do? …“Christians have learned from bitter experience that many of our allegedly helpful means of climbing up to God are easily perverted into ways of defending ourselves against God.”
However, as Hosea makes clear, against God there is no final defense. Like a husband madly in love with his wife, the Lord is relentless. For eight more chapters God will rail against his people’s infidelity, but only so they may finally realize that it is he who truly loves them. The Lord not only keeps faith as the devoted husband, but in Christ he will keep faith for his people too, and in doing so, he will make them faithful. “I am the one who answers your prayers and cares for you,” says the Lord in Hosea’s last chapter, “I am the tree that is always green; all your fruit comes from me.” “I am the vine, you are the branches,” Jesus echoes. “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”
Though I think the words uttered by the people in chapter 6 were uttered insincerely, they were still the right words. Some would say they were more right than realized. Verse 2 has the people strumming, “After two days God will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him.” It’s impossible for us who sit this side of the resurrection not to make a connection to Jesus. Is Hosea preaching the gospel? Of course he is, as much as every prophet preaches the gospel. That Israel had been “torn to pieces” (verse 1) was not understood as merely a flesh wound. They knew they were dead and buried. But they knew that in the end, sinful and unfaithful as they were, somehow, God would raise them up.
Park Street Church still has its problems. Inasmuch as we’re comprised of redeemed saints who remain sinners on earth, we always will. The good news is that Jesus still shares supper with sinners.