Sunday, March 07, 2010

What the Lord Wants

Hosea 5-6:6
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.

Herding Cats

Hosea 4
by Daniel Harrell

On the one hand, Hosea is the perfect book for Valentine’s Day. It features a loving husband who spares no expense to express his devotion to his beloved. He romances and woos, he lavishes with extravagant gifts, he sacrificially gives and forgives when she wrongs him. He even pays off her debts. On the other hand, Hosea is a lousy book for Valentine’s Day. That’s because the object of all this unconditional devotion has no scruples about snubbing the affection and re-gifting the gifts to someone she likes better. She tromps all over the forgiveness and exploits his financial generosity by taking the money and running off with other lovers, without a care for how it rips out her husband’s heart. By now you know that the two-timed husband is God himself, and his chosen Israel play the part of the trollop. It’s a Valentine’s Day nightmare that also plays out in the personal life of Hosea. Despite his undying devotion and mercy, Hosea’s two-timing (or make that three or four-timing) wife Gomer dumps him for a string of stiffs she can’t help but idolize. Any normal man would have divorced the tramp and been done with her. But God won’t let Hosea off that easily. Instead he commands Hosea to “go love that adulterous woman” so that Hosea would know what it was like for the Lord to love Israel. It would make him a better prophet. So Hosea obeyed.
Chapter 3 ended with Hosea taking his cheating wife back. Or to be specific, Hosea bought her back. Apparently Gomer’s adulteries had landed her so deep in debt that Hosea had to rescue her. But note that Hosea saved and forgave the sinful Gomer without any appeal or repentance on her part. He did it because he loved her and because God loved him. The Bible tells us that our ability to love those who’ve hurt us comes from God who first loved us and forgave us. And yet to forgive is not to pretend as if nothing happened. You only forgive someone who has done something wrong. To forgive begins with blame. Ideally, forgiveness ends with reconciliation, but that can be harder than forgiveness to achieve. Grace is never permission to stay just as you are. Here in Hosea, grace comes with ground rules. Hosea told Gomer, “You are to live with me many days; you must have no sex with any man, nor I with you.” For this promiscuous woman it was time to go cold turkey. As it pertained to Israel, it was time for idolatry detox. Despite all the love from the Lord, Israel inexplicably chased after other gods to love. Though what made their idolatry especially egregious was the fact that the gods they chased after weren’t gods at all. In verse 12 we read how they were nothing but tinker toys. Sticks of wood. Lincoln logs. OK, so maybe that’s not so inexplicable. We all love our toys. They do what we want and never talk back. They make no demands. Not like relationships. True, the Israelites had to do nothing to earn God’s love, but they were expected to do something once they’d received it. Like any marriage, the expectation was that they’d be faithful in good times and bad, for better or worse. The only difference was that Israel’s wedding vows needed more specificity. So God spelled out what faithfulness to him looked like: honoring parents, speaking truthfully, not stealing or murdering or coveting or lying or cheating―all the sorts of behavior you’d rightly expect from someone who promises to love you. But as the old saying goes, promises are made to be broken, and in Israel’s case, they weren’t worth the stone on which they were chiseled. Nevertheless, Hosea sought to fix his marriage, but it had to kill him to do it. Just as it would kill God to bring his people back to their marriage. Hosea’s hard love previews Jesus’ own dying love, and love that would seek to draw all people to him. In chapter 3 Hosea writes how “The Israelites will return and seek the LORD their God and David their king”—“David their king” is code for Jesus, the son of David and inheritor of his eternal throne. Chapter 4, however, describes Israel in the throes of her detox, with God the scorned husband making plain the sins of his wife. The wife does represent Israel; but in particular, she is Israel’s leadership. Her priests and her kings. The people in general are represented by Hosea and Gomer’s three children. However it is something of a distinction without a difference. The Lord had declared all of Israel to be “a kingdom of priests,” a designation that Peter picks up on in the New Testament when he refers to all believers in Jesus as “a royal priesthood and a holy nation.” Basically, a priest is anybody devoted to serving God. However, within Israel then, as within churches today, there are those individuals who embody the people as a whole, discharging service to God on behalf of the community―like elected representatives serve a constituency in Congress. In the Congregational tradition, we teach that every member is a minister, and yet there are those of us ordained by the congregation to perform duties and rituals on behalf of the entire body. We call these people pastors and elders, and we ordained a few new ones this past Wednesday night at our annual meeting. Pastors and elders, like Old testament priests, represent (but don’t replace) the people’s devotion to the Lord. In doing so they seek to set an example for the rest of the congregation to follow―in both faithful obedience and faithful repentance. To be a priest was a privilege. Unfortunately in Hosea’s Israel it was an abused privilege. Chapter 4 begins with a litany of wrongdoing, from cursing to murder, that essentially violate every wedding vow they’d made. Verse 1: “There is no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgment of God—only cursing, lying and murder, stealing and adultery; they break all bounds, and bloodshed follows bloodshed.” So depraved was their sin that the whole earth was at risk. “The land mourns,” verse 3. Paul famously describes it in Romans as “the creation groaning,” eager to be let out from under the weight of human depravity. So pervasive was the sin of the priests in chapter 4 that the Lord forecasts their destruction. “I will destroy your mother,” verse 5, going on to declare that because “you reject the law of God, I will also reject your children.” To reject the law of God was to reject the way of God and will of God―it was to reject God himself. In ancient Israel the “law of God” governed everything. There was no such thing as separation between church and state. Faith informed every aspect of societal life: government, business, law, education, health as well as worship. I hope you’ve heard about the Social Change Competition we held here last weekend. Your church put up $200K (before the recent recession) as grant money to encourage undergraduate and graduate students to develop ideas that might change the shape of society with the gospel―in effect, to infuse faith back into the realm of government, business, law and health. The disconnection of faith from the “real world” has reduced our faith to little more than a reason not to have sex or steal supplies from work (and sadly we all know how effective that’s been). Still, as one of the judges of the competition, I was blown away by the ingenuity of students who brought their faith to bear on almost every societal arena―from manufacturing brick in Zambia to job training for drug addicts in Boston. Due to the marginalization of our faith, we’ve become accustomed to sharing the gospel being reduced to embarrassingly blurting out that Jesus died for your sins, forgetting that it is the gospel that brings about new creation and true humanity. Jesus death and resurrection has inaugurated an eternity that has already started and thus should be evidenced in the ways that God’s people do everything. God’s passion for the world has all systems and communities and enterprises operating with the energy of his sovereign care and love. And yet even with God palpably in their midst, the Israelites could never function this way. Line up all the kings that get listed in the Old Testament as rulers of Israel and Judah and only three get described as not doing evil in God’s sight—David, Hezekiah and Josiah. It was worse for the priests. Not that this surprises anybody. In our own day, politics is basically synonymous with corruption. Mention “priest” or “minister” and the first word that comes to mind is “pervert.” It’s gotten so bad that a friend described a seminary class where the professor informed the budding pastors that the secret to a successful ministry comes down to one rule: “don’t fornicate.” In verse 7 the Lord bemoans the demise of the priestly vocation. “The more the priests increased, the more they sinned against me; they have turned their glorious calling into a shameful disgrace!” Rather than viewing their calling as a privilege to serve God and their neighbors, the priests treated it as an exclusive and a privileged position for themselves. Arrogance ensued and eventually cynicism and abuse. Bad press continues for the Roman Catholic Church in Germany and Ireland―so much so that one writer compared Pope Benedict to Toyota―trying to manage yet another crisis before the whole enterprise accelerates off a cliff. Yet now as then, priestly sin is a problem that just won’t go away. Verse 12: “The wind of promiscuity blows them astray; they commit spiritual adultery against their God.” A couple of historical explanations paint a better picture of what was going on in Hosea. Verse 8 says “they feed on the sins of my people and relish their wickedness.” Since Old Testament animal sacrifices provided meals for the priests―most of the offerings (the choice livestock) weren’t burned as much as they were cooked―you get the picture of priests urging people to sin more so that they could eat more steak. In verse 13, the picture of shade trees and picnics refers to the hilltop shrines where the idol worship took place. This worship tied crop fertility to human fertility, the idea being that if a farmer had sex with a woman at the crop-god shrine (and apparently every woman in the community had to take a turn at representing the crop god), then your crops would flourish. It was a convenient and twisted way for men to get what they wanted from women. And since tinker toys don’t talk back, who’s going to stop them? Read Hosea 4 and things seem hopeless. The Israelites are stubborn cows, verse 16, how can God ever get them to pasture like lambs in a meadow (shepherd being one of the preferred Biblical metaphors for God). It’s a rhetorical question. The best Hosea can hope for is that somehow Israel’s sin won’t contaminate Judah too (Israel and Judah were split kingdoms following the reign of Solomon). Hosea pleads with Judah not to take after her sister because God is serious about Israel’s destruction. He’s going to put a stop to their evil. In 720 AD the Assyrians would overrun the northern kingdom and Israel as Hosea knew it would be over. And yet, Hosea’s hope for Judah would be Israel’s hope. Judah was Jesus’ ancestor and tribe, and when you turn to the book of Hebrews, its Jesus who steps up to take over the role of priest. Centuries of failure and abuse by Israel’s priests would be redeemed by a great high priest who Hebrews 5:8 says “learned obedience from what he suffered and once made perfect, became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.” When we were in Hosea chapter 2, we read how the Lord promised his people he’d fix their marriage. He’d fix the marriage by fixing them. True, God fixed them by letting the Assyrians run over their country. But he also fixed them by sending Jesus to die for their sins. God keeps his marriage vows, and he keeps Israel’s vows too. Jesus stands in for Israel ―he stands in for us―at the altar—both as bride and groom, both as priest and sacrifice. Jesus came to earth as God in the flesh to be sure, but he also came to earth as representative of all humanity. As our representative, his faithfulness becomes our faithfulness. His obedience becomes our obedience. And his death becomes our death and his resurrection becomes our resurrection too. However to represent our obedience is not to replace our obedience, any more than Jesus’ death and resurrection replaces our own deaths and resurrection. As Hebrews declares, Jesus “became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.” While there is nothing you can do to earn your salvation, you still must do something to show you’ve received it. And yet in Jesus, what God demands he also provides. Obedience is no longer a pipe dream. Jesus in us makes obeying God doable. How? Through prayer. With others. Through practice. Obedience remains a discipline. Even for Jesus. That same verse in Hebrews reads that Jesus himself had to learn obedience, even though he was the son of God. It sounds ludicrous, but even though Jesus knew what it meant to obey God, he didn’t learn it until he did it. There’s a necessary conjunction that occurs throughout Scripture in regard to obedience. While the word itself derives from the verb “to hear,” it always comes tied to the verb “to do.” With Christ in us, we have access to his power. His obedience is our obedience. But like Jesus, we still have to learn it. We still have to do it. If you don’t obey God it’s not because you can’t. It’s because you’re not trying. Either that or you don’t want to. Easy for you to say Mr. Minister Man. You work in a church. Some of you guys even live in the church. Try coming to my office or my classroom or my lab or move into my neighborhood. Love your neighbor? Have you met my neighbor? Everybody cheats where I work. That’s how you get ahead. Jesus says don’t worship money? How else am I supposed to make a profit? And what about my boss? What am I supposed to say to him―”sorry boss, making too much money is idolatry.” I can’t go around telling people I’m a Christian or I’ll get fired. I’ll lose my grant. I’ll get left out when people hit the bar after work. If I go around acting like a Christian? I’ll get run over. I’ll get passed over for the promotion. My customers and clients will think I’ve gone soft. They’ll think I’ve gone crazy. I did try once. I prayed with a patient I was treating. I introduced a child I was coaching to a church youth group. I mentioned that cutting salaries before laying off workers might be the right thing to do. I refused to go along when everybody else padded their hours. I stood up for the person everyone else ostracized. I stayed in my marriage. I resisted temptation. And she left me anyway. I got reprimanded by my superiors. I got slapped with a demotion. I got nailed by the parents. I just got ostracized too. Obedience does work that way sometimes. But that only makes you know that it’s right. Hebrews 5:8- Jesus “learned obedience from what he suffered” because when you suffer for the gospel you learn what it means to love God. “For better or worse” is how the wedding vows put it. If you love me you will keep my commands, Jesus said. If you want to follow me you’ll carry a cross. A cross is like a wedding ring―suffering is what people who love Jesus wear. And yet there’s a strange comfort in it. If you’ve ever put yourself out there for the sake of Christ and the gospel―done what’s right, helped the needy, forgiven the enemy, stood up for righteousness, exposed the works of darkness and suffered for it―then you’ve experienced that power, that spiritual juice, that joy of obedience that energizes you to put yourself out there even further. What God demands, God provides. That’s how obedience works.