Sunday, March 07, 2010

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.

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